By David Fleet
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 the Armistice was signed ending World War I.
Just a few hours earlier Kathleen Sanders was born Nov. 10, 1918, at home, 66 Cedar St., Ortonville.
“That was 100 years ago,” laughed Kathleen, who celebrated with a birthday party Nov. 10 at Hillside Bible Church. “I’m planted here in Ortonville. My mother said there was a big celebration in town because of the end of World War I. She was not able to be there. Everybody was in town celebrating.”
Her parents gave her the middle name Victora in honor of the victory of World War I.
Kathleen was born to parents Leslie and Jennie (Howell) Saunders. The family moved from 66 Cedar St. to 29 South St., when she was about 2 years old. Kathleen had three siblings, Elva Jean Saunders Long, Merlin Howell Saunders and Elwyn (Red) Carey Saunders.
“I was the oldest,” she said. “When we lived in the village we were the first house to have electricity. We got it from the mill. I was quite young. When the mill closed down for the day we lost it. It was about 4 in the afternoon we then went back to oil lamps.”
Her father, Leslie served as the Ortonville Fire Chief while mother Jennie was the Ortonville Post Office Clerk in the old State Bank building and later as village clerk.
Kathleen’s home at 29 South St. also had the first telephone in the village installed because Leslie was fire chief.
“The telephone operator received the emergency call and she blew the fire whistle from the telephone office,” she said. “Then she called my dad. The volunteers drove in from all over the township. Some hopped on the fire truck or some drove their cars directly to the fire. That fire truck is now in The Old Mill.”
Kathleen walked to the Ortonville school at Cedar and Ball streets. Her mother had to watch her cross South Street carefully in front of their house because the DUR train tracks ran right down South Street in front of their house, she recalled.
“Walked home for lunch every day, one hour for lunch and back to school,” she said. “The only day I took my lunch to school was if there was a bad storm that day.”
She loved to take her lunch to school. No hot lunches were available.
“If we wanted to go anywhere, like Flint, the train went there,” she said.
When Kathleen was just 9 years old she needed an eye exam.
“My father worked at the Chevrolet factory in Flint,” she said. “There was a special (train) car that went to Flint. A lot of the fellows worked at the factory. It left at 4 a.m. and I had to get up to get up and go with my dad. My dad’s brother lived near the factory. I stayed at his house till my dad got out of work at noon on Saturday to see Dr. Orr on the 4th floor of the Flint P. Smith Building and then back home on the train.”
Kathleen reflected life in Ortonville in the 1920s and 30s.
“The streets in town were OK,” she said. “But all the country roads were gravel. I don’t remember them being as bad as the are now.”
Our house was full of music, she said.
“So we always had music in the house, we sang, danced, we played,” she said. “Everything was at home.”
Kathleen still plays the piano and organ today.
“It’s my passion.”
Kathleen’s parents bought a new 1925 Chevrolet touring car, with isinglass side curtains.
“It was the only car they ever owned,” she said. “It did not have bumpers; they were optional.”
The car was affectionately known as the “Blue Bird” after Kathleen’s brothers, Merlin and Red painted it blue one year. When she was about 14 years old her dad taught her to drive and she drove the old Chevy around town. After she graduated from high school she drove to Clarkston to get her driver’s license. No driver’s training.
“We did not have the opportunities to travel that we do today,” she said. “The biggest trip we took was in the 25 Chevrolet was to Manistique. That was in 1927. We camped along the way including Burt Lake State Park. It was a special vacation, the only one we ever had. You just did not go on big vacations.”
During the Depression, people who lived on the farms would bring goods into town.
“They traded eggs for groceries,” she said. “At the grocery store everything was done manually they totaled the sales by hand.”
She graduated valedictorian from Ortonville High School in 1936. The class trip was to Washington D.C.
“There were 11 students in our class,” she said. “People volunteered to drive us to Washington. We camped in tents on the way and the trip took a couple of days to get there.”
Kathleen returned to Washington DC in 2015, 73 years later.
Kathleen met John Elwyn Leece, while skating on the Old Mill Pond right down the street from their house. They were married on July 12, 1941 and lived at 1814 Hadley Road on the Leece Farm where Kathleen became a farmer’s wife.
“His first name was really John,” she said. “Father’s name was John so he went by his middle name Elwyn.”
“We all worked together,” said, Kathleen of farm life. “If anyone needed anything they were right there to help. Everybody, was there if something happened. Neighbors all came to thrashing day or silo filling day. We had to fix the meal to feed the men, that was the lady’s job to fix dinner. Lots of time we cleaned and killed our own chicken too. It was a lot of work. They ate then went back to work. It’s a wonderful occupation, because you are out in the fields and working from dawn to dusk. You’re in God’s country. It’s a good life. I learned to be a farmers wife.”
Kathleen and Elwyn moved to Hummer Lake Road in 1967 when the farm was sold.
“I’ve not had any health issues,” she said. “I still get out.”
Her drivers license expired on her100th birthday but she had not driven in a few years.
“I’m not going to renew the license,” she laughed. “It had been a few years since I’ve driven and it was only around town.”
She still exercises daily and has a big hot meal at lunchtime.
“I tell everyone just keep moving,” she said. “Don’t set down and let the world go by.”