Raising a Family in the Forest Service

The part of the interview with the Smalls I found most interesting was learning about how they raised their family while Gordon worked in the Forest Service. Ginny and Gordon were both kind enough to share a number of personal memories about this with me. This post discusses what it was like for the Smalls to raise their family as Gordon moved through different positions and locations within the Forest Service.

Gordon and Ginny Small

Raising a family in the Forest Service entailed advantages and challenges for the Small family. Gordon and Ginny met in Berea, Kentucky where Ginny was a student. Gordon recalled, “She was going to Berea College and … I had asked somebody where you met women around here. And they said, well, a good place is the Student Union. So I walked into the Student Union and met a woman. And anyway, we got married and lived in a couple professors’ houses there when they were on sabbatical for a while. But when the Redbird opened up we went over there together.” Soon after their marriage, the Smalls moved to Manchester, Kentucky where Gordon worked on the Red Bird Purchase Unit for the Forest Service. Moving to this small town was a new experience for Ginny, who remembered, “At Manchester, we had a tiny two-bedroom apartment upstairs over a barber shop that sprayed for bugs every Wednesday, overlooking Main Street of Manchester. Main Street in Manchester meant a little narrow street with coal trucks, loaded coal trucks, rumbling through every hour of the day. The first night we were there, there was a street fight – two women fighting over some guy underneath our living room window… there was a Piggly Wiggly there. I learned the first week that when you put an egg in something you’re cooking, you always crack it into another bowl first because it may have a baby chicken in it or the bread and the cereal had bugs in it. It was, you know, after the second or third week, we learned to go to London and do our grocery shopping.”

In our conversation together, Ginny discussed the challenges she faced when their first daughter was born. Ginny’s daughter was born early and the hospital in Manchester didn’t have adequate facilities to handle preemie children. They ended up going to London, Kentucky so Ginny could give birth. Because their daughter came so early, she had to stay in the hospital for two months for treatments. This was in the winter of 1965 and the snow and ice sometimes prevented Ginny and Gordon from going to see their newborn for days at a time. They finally brought their daughter home for the first time two months after she was born.

Ginny encountered new challenges once they brought their daughter home. Manchester was a coal town and Ginny and Gordon both recalled the experience of coal trucks driving up and down the streets every hour of the day. Gordon remembered, “It was, it was different. It was a coal town and the coal trucks, small town, coal trucks ran through town all the time. There was dust everywhere. You could dust your counter in the morning and by evening it had this grey dust all over it.” When they brought the baby home, she suffered from respiratory issues. The doctors advised Ginny to keep her daughter inside at all times to avoid the coal dust.  This proved to be a challenge for Ginny as she tried to take care of the household duties. She noted, “Well, we brought this little tiny five pounder home from the hospital with instructions not to take her out because of all the coal dust in the air…what with respiratory problems. But yet, he was on fire duty and working weird hours, as I said, leaving at 5 and 6 o’clock in the morning and getting home at 11 or 12 o’clock at night. I have to go to the grocery store. I have to go to the laundromat. But there’s no time to go when I can’t take Jennifer out.”

In spite of these difficulties, Ginny and Gordon have found many more positive memories to focus on. They moved fourteen times over the course of Gordon’s career and often set down roots in these different communities. Gordon noted that “everything was a lot better if you actually got involved in what was going in the community instead of just hiding within the Forest Service family…that could be church, that could be community activities, whatever. You knew you were gonna move again, but you developed friendships and your kids, everybody, family was just better off.” Ginny and Gordon both enjoyed visiting new places and exploring different communities and both especially enjoy memories of their time spent in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ginny happily remembered a moment when her youngest daughter rebelled against the cold weather the family encountered in Wisconsin: “When we moved to Wisconsin, our youngest, Heather, had just turned 6 in April and she was in kindergarten. The next year, in April when she turned 7, I found her – we had given her a little suitcase that she could pack to put her toys and books and whatever she wanted to take with her when she travelled to put that in. And I found it in her room and she had the bottom drawer of her bureau open and she was pulling everything out and puttin’ it in her suitcase. I asked her what she was doing. She told me she was packing to go back to Virginia because she was tired of all the snow.” The Smalls learned to adapt to the weather by taking Christmas pictures in front of a frozen Lake Michigan and sending them off to friends living in warmer areas.   

Both parents felt that the experience of moving around and seeing different communities made their children stronger and more independent individuals. Gordon explained, “If you move around a lot, you get to meet a lot of new people, you get a lot of different experiences, you get exposed to a lot of perspectives that you wouldn’t have gotten exposed to. So, there’s plusses and minuses. I think our kids have a different, a broader view of things maybe than someone that never did get a chance to move around.”