Before marrying Merville Curvey, Velma Smith attended Eastern Illinois University, became a teacher, and taught at Rosedale School in Bear Creek Township. She is pictured here in 1924. Velma Pearl Smith Curvey lived to be 112 years old, to become one of Christian County’s longest living residents. (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Voorhees, of Taylorville, IL.)
This 1927 photo pictures Velma Smith Curvey (1898 - 2010) and her husband, Merville Curvey (1903 - 1977) in the year they were married at the First United Methodist Church parsonage in Taylorville, IL. (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Voorhees, of Taylorville, IL.)
by Kendra Crede Breeze-Courier Writer
TAYLORVILLE - Her life spanned three centuries. Velma Pearl Smith Curvey was born to parents, Reuben and Letha Poffenbarger Smith, on Sept. 15, 1898, at the Louis Montgomery farmhouse in Mt. Auburn Township. Her parents were originally from Grove City, IL, between Taylorville, IL and Mt. Auburn, IL. Velma kept a meticulous journal, and the family would later move to Palmer, IL (incorporated in 1873) in Bear Creek Township. Her records list the “business houses” of Palmer, IL in 1880: Farmer’s Grain Company, flour and mill, hardware dealers, restaurant and barbershop, J. L. Boyd Lumber Company, dry goods store, shoe store, blacksmith’s shop, Blanchard and Priest’s Grocery, and Dr. J. P. Simpson. In the “1873-1973 Centennial: Palmer, Illinois,” Oscar Ulery wrote about funerals in the early 1900’s. “When Palmer was first organized, it had a coffin shop run by J. B. McGinnis, but by 1880 this place of business was no longer in existence. So one or two persons were dispatched to an adjoining town for the purchase of a coffin. In those days coffins were of plain wood quite uniform in style, wide in the middle and tapering to each end, and were usually priced about $40. Embalming was unknown and did not come into practice until about 1890. The services of an undertaker and a hearse were out of the ordinary and the funeral and burial was conducted entirely by local people. After the burial ritual was completed the coffin was lowered into the box at the bottom of the grave by means of the lines which had been removed from the harness of some team for that purpose and the lid of the box replaced. Then volunteers, two or three at a time, would proceed to fill the grave with shovels, the spectators and friends remaining until the grave was filled and dirt mounded over the box. The total cost of a funeral rarely ever exceeded $50.” Elsewhere, twenty-fifth President of the United States, William McKinley, occupied what is now the Lincoln Bedroom, before the addition what would become known as the Oval Office. During the nineteenth century and the year Velma was born, the Boxer Rebellion had begun in China. Also in 1898 Velma’s favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals - in their last year as the St. Louis Browns - were ranked twelfth of 12, with a 39-111 record, in the National League. Of Milwaukee WI, third baseman, catcher, and outfielder Lave Cross was voted the team’s most valuable player that year. At the turn of the century, the population of Taylorville, IL was 4,248. President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, and Theodore Roosevelt, at the age of 42, became the twenty-sixth President of the United States. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. In 1902, the third Christian County Courthouse was built, and Best Brothers Bank opened in Palmer, IL. The first world series occurred in 1903, between the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Wright Brothers were the first to fly a “controllable self-propelled, heavier than air machine” on Dec. 17, 1903. A telephone system was installed in the Christian County Courthouse in 1904. In 1905, Albert Einstein, at age 26, published his Special Theory of Relativity that revolutionized science. The first Model-T was sold in 1908. Velma was about 12 years old in 1910, when her father, Reuben, rented 600 acres and relocated the family three-and-a-half miles northwest of Palmer, IL, known as the George Kirkwood Farm. Her parents raised mules, Jersey milk cows, Rhode Island Red chickens, and Chester White boars - winning several blue ribbons at county and state fairs. According to Velma’s journal, in 1912 Reuben sold Charles McKinzie a mule for $575, which she attributed in her notes to the burro’s “fast walk.” Palmer State Bank opened in Palmer, IL in 1912, and electricity was brought to the town in 1913. The Smith family raised horses, too. “Grandpa loved to race horses,” said Velma’s daughter, Carolyn Curvey Voorhees. According to Carolyn, two of the horses that Reuben bred and sold - Billy Arthur and Spencer Boy - raced in a county fair and won 19 first-place races and three second-place races out of 22 races. Reuben ran a thrasher and hay bailer during the harvest season. He would travel to neighboring farms with his steam engine. Velma’s journal included an account from 1920, when she had to drive her father to St. Louis, MO, after he was scalded on both legs by an explosion from the steam engine. Farm hand and Velma’s future husband, Merville Curvey, operated the steam engine after her father’s accident until 1923. “My mother and father met on the farm,” said Carolyn. “The farm hands received room and board for working. They did not have transportation.” Velma made comments in the earlier years of her journal alluding to a quiet childhood and to her loneliness for not having any near neighbors. She occupied her days before elementary school by helping her parents on the farm, an activity she continued while they still operated the homestead. In her journal she writes about pet horses and dogs. “We were strictly country folks,” Velma wrote. “Blakeville school was a lively introduction,” she noted about her elementary years. Her father, Reuben, served as a school director. She learned to sew from her mother, Letha, and developed a fondness and skill for gardening. “Mother was a fantastic seamstress,” acknowledged Carolyn. “She made all of my clothes. My high school graduation dress was probably my first store-bought dress.” “And mother always had a flower garden. She would design the whole thing in little patches. She preferred to be outside, more than inside.” Velma would crochet and quilt. Like her mother, Letha, she was active in the Advent Christian Church. Velma’s mother taught Sunday school at the church for 40 years. “With the Ladies Aid, she would serve food at land auctions,” Carolyn added. In 1923, Velma was a charter member of the JOAT Club, along with Dorothy Simpson, Hester Peed, Beulah Cotterell, Nellie Corn, Alta K. Bangert, and Florence Bremer. The club was organized for young, “Palmerite,” girls. Velma served on the entertainment committee. Plans were made for an all year birthday party, to be held at her house on Oct. 12, 1923. Girls paid a quarter to attend, and there were 46 guests in addition to the club members. Entertainment to represent all 12 months of the year was held in the Smith basement, and each girl was served at a table representing the month of her birth. In 1924, the JOAT club presented what they called a home talent play, “Mary’s Millions,” at the Palmer Opera House on Jan. 1 and Jan. 2 and on Jan. 16, at the Kincaid Theatre. The club took trips with and without their boyfriends. They traveled to St. Louis, MO, saw Forest Park, Shaw’s Gardens, and Jefferson’s Memorial, held picnic lunches in Decatur, Pana, and Vandalia parks, and organized dinner bonfires in the woods. Before marrying and occupying herself as a homemaker, Velma attended Eastern Illinois University after graduating from Taylorville High School in 1917. She returned to teach at the one-room, Rosedale School in Bear Creek Township. Her journal included her class rosters, names of fellow colleagues, and a large collection of Valentine’s Day cards from her students. In 1925, Velma traveled to Pasadena, CA, to attend a cousin’s wedding. By this time more than a decade had passed since 1906, the year that an earthquake ruined San Francisco, CA and race riots killed over 20 in Atlanta (in rising civil unrest and response to the established 1896 Supreme Court "separate but equal" segregation doctrine). Dancers did the Tango (popularized in 1910), and the Harlem Renaissance and prohibition was about to begin in the 1920’s. The League of Nations was established in 1919, after World War I. The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed into law and gave women the right to vote in 1920, and the first commercial radio broadcast was aired. Velma married Merville Madison Curvey on Sept. 8, 1927, at the First United Methodist Church parsonage in Taylorville, IL. In her journal Velma described how they snuck away from a church chicken fry to be married. She wrote, “He kept his wedding ring in his pocket,” when they returned to the church gathering, and did not tell anyone right away. “The secret was not kept long,” her notes continued. They started telling relatives a few days later. Velma detailed their visit to Merville’s parents. Upon entering the home, they related the news to Merville’s mother, and, from the account in her journal, Merville dashed upstairs to gather his work clothes for the next day and left Velma to receive the greetings and good wishes of the family. The end of her account stated that on Merville’s way to work the next day he received handshakes from everyone who passed, with the additional note: “Palmer gossip was never idle long.” Merville worked as a self-employed stock truck driver in the 1930’s. Oct. 24, 1929 was named "Black Tuesday,” with the stock market crash on Wall Street, the beginning of the Great Depression. Pluto was discovered in 1930. At home, the mine wars exploded in Christian County. And the newlywed couple’s daughter was born. “I was the their only daughter and the only grandchild,” said Carolyn, born to Merville and Velma in 1932. “You’d think I was spoiled, but I wasn’t. I tagged my grandfather, Reuben. He was my idol.” In the basement of the two-story home, Reuben used the separator room to draw apart the cream from the milk. Carolyn recalls helping her grandfather turn the separator. “I thought that was big fun.” Near the basement kitchen, Velma had set up the clothes washing station. Carolyn remembers assisting her with the wash. “There were two pumps on either side of the room and a long sink. One pump was for drinking water, and the other pump was from a cistern. I was in charge of filling the cold water tub, and Mother filled the hot water tub. We would wring the clothes by the kitchen floor drains and then hang them outside to dry.” Merville and Velma attended the 1939 world’s fair in New York, the second largest American world’s fair. In 1939 Merville served as the road commissioner of Bear Creek Township. A 1939 edition of the Breeze-Courier newspaper and printing company celebrated its 45-year anniversary. The St. Louis Cardinals finished second of eighth in the National League that year. Thirty-second President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office (1933 to 1945). The Battle of Britain took place in 1940, World War II having begun the year before. Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. In 1945 the United States dropped two atomic bombs over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The war came to an end with the Allies’ victory in the same year, and the United Nations was established. 1950 was a year for many firsts: the first organ transplant, the first modern credit card, and the first “Peanuts” cartoon strip. The Korean War began. After working in the coal mines in the early 1940’s, in 1944 Merville worked on the Wabash Railroad as a fireman. He also worked as a carpenter and owned his own garage in Palmer, IL in 1947. An unsigned excerpt from the “1873-1973 Centennial: Palmer, Illinois,” states: “In March 1951, while Alta Eilers and her son David were visiting in Palmer, she and Velma Curvey chatted about our long ago plan for a reunion. Alta said if we would tell her when Nellie Parrish planned to come back she would contact the others and try to get the [JOAT] club members together. Nellie had just written to Dorothy for information about the Morrisonville homecoming. They were planning to come from Phoenix, AZ, that summer. We contacted the others and the weekend of July 21 was decided upon. July 21, 1951 dawned clear and bright. Alta Eilers came from Detroit, MI, James and Hester Smith motored from Kewanee, IL, Owen and Nellie Parrish and two daughters, Phyllis and Marilyn, were here from Phoenix, AZ, Wendell and Florence Simpson and son, Bremer, from Wilmette, IL, Dorothy Dey, and Doris Jane, all enjoyed a fried chicken dinner with the Curvey’s, Merville, Velma, and Carolyn. A five o’clock buffet supper was served in the Dey home. At ten that evening we enjoyed delicious watermelon, and soon after we drifted apart one by one. We vowed we would have another one every ten years, but that was the last time the group has been together.” The official name of the JOAT club has been kept a secret from anyone who is not a member. Carolyn remembered her mother telling her that, on one day, Merville guessed the true name of the club. “But Mother never let on that he got it right,” Carolyn said while shaking her head. Velma never told Carolyn what it meant either, and the name has remained a mystery. Carolyn Cuvey married Dean Voorhees on March 29, 1953. They have two children: Patricia Lynn Lush (1955 - ) and Edwin Dean Voorhees (1960 - ). The U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling in 1954. In 1958, Velma’s father, Reuben Smith, passed away. His funeral, held at Shafer Funeral Home cost, $1,122.53. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the thirty-fourth President of the United States (1953 to 1961). According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, on Sept. 26, 1960, 70 million U.S. viewers tuned in to watch Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential debate. Alfred Hitchcock released “Psycho.” Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. On Nov. 22, 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX. Letha Smith, Velma’s mother, passed away in 1965. Her funeral, held at Shafer Funeral Home, cost $1,361.56. Lyndon B. Johnson was the thirty-sixth President of the United States (1961 to 1969). On March 8, 1965, the first U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam. In 1970 the Kent State shootings occurred, and the Beatles broke up. On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Computer floppy disks were introduced. In 1970 Merville retired from carpentry with the Ward Brothers of Taylorville. Velma’s husband died in 1977, after their 50th wedding anniversary. That year the thirty-ninth United States President, Jimmy Carter, took office (1977 to 1981). The 1980’s made the Rubik’s Cube popular, and Ted Turner established CNN. Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. Velma sold her home in Palmer, IL, where she and Merville lived their entire married lives, in 1985. Nelson Mandela was freed from a South African prison, and the Hubble Telescope was launched into space in 1990. Jan. 1, 2001 was the first day of the twenty-first century. On Sept. 11, 2001, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed at what was called Ground Zero after a terrorist attack, which is today the site of the Flight 93 National Memorial, Pentagon Memorial, Tribute in Light, and other memorials and is the future site of the tallest building project in the United States. This sparked the Afghanistan Wars, and the Iraq War began with the United States’ invasion of the Middle Eastern country in 2003 - overthrowing Saddam Hussein. In 2006 the XXVIth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union revoked Pluto’s status as a planet. Barack H. Obama became the forty-fourth President of the United States in 2009. In 2010 the St. Louis Cardinals were ranked second of six, with a record of 86-76, in the National League Central Division. After living with her daughter, Carolyn, from 1985 until 2001, Velma spent her last years at the Taylorville Care Center. “In her later years, she was affected by dementia. She no longer knew who I was,” said Carolyn. “Her mother lived to be 90, and her father lived to be 88. She looked after them both. You took care of your own.” Not one for liking her picture taken nor for being the center of attention - according to her daughter Carolyn - perhaps, Velma’s sense of herself as a teacher would approve of her story being included in a history lesson that attempts to scratch the surface of a notable life lived in Christian County. Kendra Crede can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 824-2233.