The way things were: Reminiscing on over 80 years in Bertram

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Billie and Don Collins, residents of Bertram for over 80 years, are living testaments to the way Bertram used to be. (Rebecca Canfield Photo)

Billie and Don Collins, residents of Bertram for over 80 years, are living testaments to the way Bertram used to be. (Rebecca Canfield Photo)

By Rebecca Canfield

BERTRAM — Billie (Daniels) Collins has lived in Bertram for over 80 years. She remembers when Bertram Elementary School had an outhouse. She remembers when going into town included hitching up a wagon, not grabbing a set of keys, and she remembers when clothes were generally made from patterns, and rarely purchased in stores.

While some of her peers have moved far from home, Billie stayed put.

Perhaps this is because for the Daniels family, love was never too far away. Billie’s parents, Claude and Eula (Fry) Daniels, practically grew up together as neighbors, and were raised on adjoining cotton farms back when Bertram was barely getting started. Billie, who is a third-generation Bertram resident, was raised with both sets of grandparents, Noah and Fannie Daniels and Jim and Ella Fry just down the road and directly across the street from one another.

And just like her parents, Billie’s own great love wasn’t found too far from home either. Billie, who dated classmate Don Collins all four years of high school, went on to spend the next 65 years with Don, a boy whom she has known since the fifth grade. However, for Billie and Don, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

“He was a mean little old kid in elementary school,” laughed Billie. “He was mischievous.”

“I picked on the girls,” Don said with a grin.

However, when the pair got older, they began spending time walking home from church together, and eating Sunday supper at each other’s houses. Eventually, it developed into a love that has stood the test of time.

“When we first started dating, I made a pineapple cake, and they say that’s what I won him with – my pineapple cake,” said Billie.

“She is a great cook,” agreed Don.

In high school, Billie was 1950’s Miss Bertram High School. She was also the class president two years, a member of the pep squad and the class secretary. Don was a basketball player, a football player, a member of Future Farmers of America, and was involved in drama.

However the dating process in Bertram in the 1940’s was a bit different from today. Back then, Billie says, there wasn’t anyplace to go except the movies, and privacy could be very limited.

“We didn’t own a car until after we were married. When we dated on Saturday nights, his family only had one pick-up and it was just a one-seater. He had two brothers that were also wanting to come into town on Saturday night, too, so they came with him,” said Billie. “After they went to the show, and while we were still courting, they would wait out in the pick-up for him to get ready to go home, and one of them would come to the door and say, ‘Don, do you know what time it is?’ The other one would sleep away in the truck.”

Like Billie’s family, Don’s family has also spent generations in the Bertram area. Although Don was born in Joppa, he says his mother Minnie May Jennings’ great-grandfather, John Jennings was one of the founders of Burnet County.

Jennings, who came to Burnet County in 1851 was instrumental in organizing the county government. Mount Zion Cemetery, located at 313 Creek 330A in Bertram, was originally known as the Jennings Family Cemetery, and the settlements around the Jennings farm were originally known as the Jennings Creek Community.

“He served on the first, second, third, and fifth commissioners court,” said Don.

However, Don says his best memories growing up in Bertram were spent hunting and fishing with his brothers.

“We would hunt squirrels, rabbits, and even soft-shell turtles,” said Don. “We’d kill hogs in the fall and put the meat in the smokehouse, and we canned everything.”

Back before food was as near as the local Wal-mart, and before most people had the benefit of refrigeration, Bob and Billie remember how food was stored differently than it is now. They remember when sausage was homemade, and was stored in the bottom of a vat of lard until it was ready to be cooked.

“Back in my grandparent’s day, they preserved all their vegetables and everything. They grew a big garden and everybody would get together and pick beans, and then snap beans, and then all help with the canning. It was the whole family,” said Billie. “My Grandmother Daniel even made her own ketchup, and put it in bottles. She had a bottle sealer that you would use to crimp the top, just like off of an old Coke bottle.”

Billie also remembers being one of the lucky few in town who had electricity. Back when Billie was young, only a few people who lived in town had electricity, while folks who lived on the outskirts still had to go without.

“I remember my grandparents not having electricity. It was dark and cold especially in the wintertime,” said Billie. “There would just be Kerosene lamps, and one room was only ever heated, the room where you’d sit around and talk. The bedrooms would never be heated, so you’d have to have a load of covers.”

Billie also remembers that up until the mid 1940’s people still rode their horses or their wagons into town.

“I could hear my granddad when he drove his team to the gin, hollering at his mules and horses, and I remember one day I told my mother, I said, ‘Papaw is at the gin! Can you take me down there to see him?’ and she took me down there and I got to ride home on his wagon,” said Billie.

That time period was the heyday of cotton farming in Bertram, she explained.

“All of the people came to town on Saturdays. My dad was a barber on Vaughan Street. Sometimes he would work all night on Saturday nights during the harvest season because the farmers would come in to get their hair cut and a shave, and sometimes even a shower. They had a shower in there,” Billie said.

During that time period, Billie and Don said, people also came into town because of necessity. With limited mobility, people had to get food and supplies from somewhere close by. Back then, Billie says, there were a lot more businesses in town, because there just wasn’t anywhere else close by to go to. People had to shop in Bertram. Even Billie’s mother would sell butter and eggs to locals.

“She milked about seven cows morning and night, and kept the milk and made butter and sold it. Then she had chickens, and we would help her to gather eggs and she sold eggs. My granddad had cows and calves, and then horses and mules that he plowed with, and hogs. There was always a pen of hogs because they did their own butchering in the wintertime, and processed their own sausage, and even rendered lard.”

However, in the 1940’s when car dealerships began to spring up around Bertram, people began to venture out, and eventually shop further from home, Billie said. Between that, and the end of the cotton boom, people and businesses began to leave town. However, Billie and Don stayed in the same spot.

“I was born in 1933 right over where the Exxon station is,” mused Billie. “That’s only two blocks from here.”

And after living in the same place for almost their entire 83 years, minus one year in Austin, Billie and Don have gotten to know Bertram quite well. In fact, the couple has a neat story about just about everyone in town, so many, in fact, that they could easily fill volumes with their personal memories of how the town has changed.

While others have moved away over the years, or have left small town Bertram in search of something better, Billie and Don Collins have discovered that sometimes you just start off in the right place to begin with, and when that is the case, there simply isn’t any place better to go.

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