When Lilas Smith celebrates her 100th birthday in Lewiston today, she probably won’t have any complaints — although it’s been anything but a century of easy living.
Growing up on a farm near Kooskia in the 1920s and ’30s, Smith recalls hauling water to the house and running around in bare feet, because her only pair of shoes were reserved for attending school.
Her family pretty much lived off the land, hunting and fishing for meat and milking cows to churn their own butter. Her dad made his own wine and beer. Every month or so, he would drive into town to buy flour and lard and oatmeal. Her mom turned the flour sacks into underwear for the kids, making sure the “Pride of the Prairie” label ran across their bottoms.
“Kids today think we had a horrible life, but when I was young I thought it was great,” Smith said during a recent interview. “Compared to the way people live now, it was quite a different way to go. But it was a happy childhood. We were always busy.”
Smith had two brothers and two sisters growing up. She was the youngest girl. Their farm was on Harris Ridge, about 10 miles outside of town. About 30 kids from the area attended the local one-room school house. When it came time to attend high school in Kooskia, Smith had to board with a local family — doing chores and working to pay for the privilege.
“They were pretty poor,” said Jean Heartburg, one of Smith’s three daughters. “I always pictured her life like (the movie), ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’ ”
Things didn’t get much easier after Smith graduated from high school. Her future husband, Warren “Bill” Smith, enlisted in the Army in 1940 and was later captured in the Philippines by Japanese forces at the start of World War II. He spent the war in a prisoner-of-war camp. It was a few years before a letter arrived, letting her know he was still alive.
“He didn’t talk about it for a long time, but when he was in his 80s he started writing about it,” Heartburg said. “He lived to be 94.”
Her parents were in the same high school class in Kooskia, she said. They got married after Bill returned from the war in 1945. He stayed in the military until 1960, so they moved around the country quite a bit, living in Montana, Florida, Missouri, California and Alaska, as well as in Japan.
“It was a strict life,” Heartburg said. “I remember we had to eat everything on our plates.”
They lived in Lewiston for a few years after Bill retired from the Army, then they moved to Salmon for 25 years.
Smith lives at the Life Care Center in Lewiston now. About 30 kids, grandkids and great-grandkids will be on hand for her birthday celebration today.
“We did what had to be done,” Smith said of her country upbringing. “When things change, you have to change with them.”
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