Evans City woman still on the move at 101
EVANS CITY — Mae Wise didn’t have electricity in the Jefferson Township farmhouse where she grew up in the 1920s and ’30s, but don’t think her childhood was dark.
“We didn’t have a lot of things when we were young, but we were happy,” said Wise, who celebrated her 101st birthday Feb. 2. “No one was running around with guns to shoot people.”
Wise, then Mae Miller, was born at her parents’ home in Saxonburg, but the family moved 1 mile west on Dinnerbell Road a year later to a farm that bordered property owned by the Knoch family, which eventually was donated to build Knoch High School.
“My mother was a Knoch,” Wise said.
She said that at that time, all the property along Dinnerbell Road west of Saxonburg was farmland.
“It was a world of difference,” Wise said, comparing the landscape then and now.
The farm where she grew up had dairy cows and chickens and was blessed with a plentiful spring that provided clear, fresh water, but the only plumbing inside the house was a hand pump where the family could get water for cooking, washing and other purposes.
“We had to go outside to the bathroom,” Wise said of the outhouse in the yard.
The heating and cooking system in her cherished childhood home would likely shock children of today.
“When I was little, we had one stove that we cooked on and we heated with,” she said. “We had an upstairs, and we didn’t have heat up there.”
To keep warm on frigid winter nights in her second-floor bedroom, Wise remembers covering up with a thick feather blanket that warded off the cold air.
In the evenings, Wise and her siblings sat around their large, round kitchen table, where a single kerosene lamp — which Wise calls an “Aladdin’s lamp” — was placed.
“We used to sit around it and do our studying,” Wise said.
Should someone need to go into another room, they carried the kerosene lamp to light their way. The house was wired for basic electricity in 1938, when one light bulb was installed in a ceiling on the home’s first floor.
Wise and her siblings walked the mile up Dinnerbell Road to the Saxonburg Public School, which was a grammar school on the current borough building property on West Main Street.
“It was a nice, big brick school,” she said.
When it came time for high school, Wise attended Butler High, which was the red brick building on North McKean Street that was most recently Butler Middle School.
She went to secondary school in Butler because she had a job at the Paradise Shop on Main Street, which sold women’s clothing, accessories and outerwear.
“We had an old Model A Ford, and I drove it to Butler,” Wise said.
She still marvels at the ability of the now-antique car to easily navigate snowy roads in the winter.
“That thing went anywhere,” Wise said. “Wherever you wanted it to go, it went.”
Wise was unable to graduate from high school, as she needed to work to help support her family during the financially difficult times of the Great Depression and World War II.
She recalled government rationing of gasoline and tires during that time.
“When we’d drive to Butler to work, we had a special card that said I could drive (during rationing),” Wise said.
While the Depression conjures up memories of food shortages for many of those who experienced it, farm families largely avoided hunger.
“We had plenty to eat because my mother had a big garden,” Wise said. “She made butter and bread too.”
She recalls getting an onion, tomato and lettuce from the garden and making a sandwich on homemade bread.
“Ohhhhh that was so good,” Wise said.
But all was not perfect during her childhood, as bad actors still existed.
“When I was growing up, there was a lot of stealing going on,” Wise said. “A cattle rustler stole the neighbor’s cows and took them to Pittsburgh to a slaughterhouse. They caught the guy and he got 20 years.”
She said thieves also purloined birds from her family’s chicken coop.
While working at G.C. Murphy in Butler as a young adult, Wise went on a blind date with a female co-worker and her boyfriend.
Her date was the co-worker’s cousin, Harold Wise.
“He had black curly hair,” Wise said. “He had everything I wanted.”
Harold was spending his break after Navy boot camp at his family home in Evans City.
“I didn’t know where Evans City was,” Wise said.
The couple wrote letters back and forth while Harold served as a Navy Seabee during World War II.
The couple married in 1946 at St. Mark Lutheran Church on Main Street in Saxonburg, which was Wise’s home church.
“When I was a kid, my dad said ‘Mae, you’ll probably marry a farmer’ and I said ‘No, I’m going to marry an engineer,’ and that’s what I did,” Wise said.
Harold worked for Robinson Industries in Harmony, and in 1959, the couple bought a house in Evans City, where Wise still lives.
“We paid $7,500,” Wise said. “We had to do a lot of remodeling. It still had gas lights.”
Wise got busy raising three daughters in the two-story house. One infant son is deceased.
“My husband said, ‘You don’t have to work,’” she recalled.
Harold Wise died in September 2006, leaving his wife to cherish her memories of the couple’s cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, Australia, Hawaii and Belgium, and many vacations.
Wise answers instantaneously when asked how she has lived to be 101 and continues to enjoy life.
“Because I don’t sit,” she said, with deadly seriousness in her eyes. “I’d even stand up to look at the paper.”
She bowled for more than 40 years, always enjoyed dancing and was an avid walker.
Wise heard that walking backward strengthens the leg muscles.
“I do that at home,” she said.
Wise also watches and follows along with an exercise show on television.
“I exercised all my life,” Wise said. “I swam at the YMCA in Butler every week.”
Wise also recommends eating fish, fruit and vegetables, which have been her staples for many years.
Barbara Nulph, of Jackson Township, takes her mother to the grocery store since she stopped driving and takes her to look around at local shops.
On Saturday, Nulph and other family members took Wise out for a birthday dinner, followed by an hour at Rivers Casino, where Wise likes to play the slot machines.
Nulph said her daughters take Wise to the casino every other week or so, but her mom is always up for getting out of the house.
“All you have to say to her is ‘You want to go?’” she said. “We are really blessed. She does keep us all hopping.”
Wise loves adventure, and even filmed a McDonald’s commercial decades ago in Pittsburgh.
“I had to say ‘On a sesame-seed bun,’” Wise said. “The guy said ‘Oh I love the way you said that.’”
Wise has concerns about children of today and their respective longevity.
“Too much television,” she said. “They need to get outside and enjoy what God has given us.”
Wise said she wouldn’t change a thing about her childhood, or any of her long life, for that matter.
“I didn’t have everything like the kids do today, and they don’t appreciate it,” she said, “but I’ve had a wonderful life.”