A girl’s courage, a man’s generosity
Each year when Pioneer Days rolls around, some of the windows and storefronts of businesses on Main Street in Marlinton are decorated with items from yesteryear. Photos, clothing and objects that bring back memories of the way things used to be.
This year, the window display at C.J. Richardson will include an unassuming item – a baby carriage. While it may seem like just another window display, this carriage from the 1920s carries with it a big story about a little girl.
On January 13, 1929, four-and-a-half year old Pearl Rexrode [Clarkson], of Arbovale, was enjoying a day of playing in the snow with her siblings. When she got cold, she returned to the house where she went to warm herself in front of the stove. What happened next changed her life forever.
“I came in, my father had just fixed the wood stove and it had a diamond damper,” Pearl said. “Of course then, we wore flannel clothes. I’d been out in the cold and backed up to the stove and it sucked my dress tail in, and it caught on fire. I remember, when my clothes caught on fire, my mother was upstairs and I guess I screamed and when my sisters screamed also, my mother came running down the stairs. She had a rug laying on the floor and she threw it right around me.”
Pearl’s entire back was burned as well as her right arm. Her parents, Arlie and Media Rexrode, rushed her to her grandfather Rexrode’s home.
“The only thing I can remember, and I hope I’m right, I think they put apple butter on me,” Pearl said. “I guess it was because it was something cool.”
Pearl was taken to Pocahontas Memorial Hospital where she received a skin graft from her father.
“They took it off both his legs and he was in the hospital for a short time, too, until that healed and everything,” she said. “I can remember when I was in the hospital, I cried all the time. There was a man next door to me and he would come to the door and look in and scare me.”
Pearl spent six months and one day in the hospital and residents were kept up-to-date on her progress in the Hospital News column of The Pocahontas Times. After her story was in the paper, Pearl said she was given a special gift.
“Shortly after I was in there, Mr. [C.J.] Richardson gave me the carriage,” she said. “They wheeled me around on that because I wouldn’t dare go out anyplace or anything.”
After she returned home, life went pretty much back to normal. Pearl started school where she was worried what her classmates would think of her scars.
“When I was in school, I was constantly thinking, ‘I have that terrible scar on my arm. What will everyone think?’” she said. “I didn’t get any special treatment at school. I’ve been asked if I ever got a spanking and I said, ‘yes I did.’ I was sitting in the desk and I had my feet out in the aisle. There was a Lambert boy who had braces on his legs and he came through there. I didn’t have my feet out there far because I wasn’t very big. He fell and he blamed me for tripping me. The teacher took a whip and whipped me from bottom [legs] to top [upper back].”
When Pearl went home and told her father about the whipping, he was very upset.
“My dad went over and did he ever, ever tell him he better never do that again to me because back then my back was so tender,” she said. “My dad was protective of me because he was a part of me. His skin was a part of me.”
Pearl continued to live a normal life and did what all girls do – she got married and entered the workforce. Pearl married Russel Clarkson, of Cass, and the two went to Baltimore, Maryland, to work at Glen Martin Aircraft Factory.
“I was a Rosie the Riveter at one time,” she said. “I was a riveter and all different kinds of things, but I wound up operating a drill press. I had to go to school there. I went to school six weeks for one thing and six weeks for another thing. I worked on planes and my husband did, too. We were in the same building.”
After three years in Baltimore, the couple returned to Pocahontas County so Pearl could take care of her ailing father. When the Clarksons were called to return to Baltimore, they were a day late and didn’t get their jobs back, so they turned around and settled in Arbovale.
The pair got jobs at Mower Lumber Company at Cass.
“I worked at the office for thirteen years until it closed down,” she said. “Russell was the dry kiln operator for Mower Lumber Company. He dried flooring for all over the world.”
In 1960, Pearl again changed jobs and became an accountant at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in Green Bank.
“When I started there, I was the first one that learned the key punch and the accounting machine was as long as [this room],” she said. “I got to see all of the building [of the facilities and telescopes]. I got to see everything. We were a big happy family when I was working. I worked almost twenty-eight years in accounting. I was the assistant accountant when I left.”
Pearl and Russell had one daughter, Wanda Jean, who has retired from the financial department in the Washington D.C. office of a senator from New Mexico. The couple were married for 59 years when Russell passed away in 2002.
Pearl recently celebrated her 90th birthday and has no regrets about the life she has led.
“I’ve had a good life,” she said. “I had a good marriage.”
All this time, through the good and the bad, Pearl’s baby carriage has remained in her possession – the carriage that was so generously given to her after her accident. Recently, during a trip to C.J. Richardson, Pearl thought of the perfect “home” for the carriage.
“I went down to Richardson’s and Terry waited on me,” she said. “I got to talking to him and I said, ‘by the way, it’s been on my mind and I wanted to ask you something. I have a baby carriage that Mr. [C.J.] Richardson gave me when I was in the hospital in Marlinton for six months.’ I said I have it and I’m trying to give things back to where I want them to go. He said, ‘yes, I’d love to have it.’”
When Richardson’s employees delivered a new washer and dryer to Pearl, they returned to the store with the carriage which is miraculously in good shape.
“One place was loose in the lining in it,” Pearl said. “It didn’t have much dust on it or anything. When they picked it up I think they could hardly believe it. The original tires, three of the wheels were really good.”
The carriage will be on display in the window at C.J. Richardson and will remain at the store as a reminder of the generosity of one man and the courage of one little girl.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org