Story by Kathleen Wilson
Village of Florida native, Carl Heter, will join a diverse and remarkable group of people on Wed., Aug. 22 when he celebrates his 100th birthday!
“I was baptized at St. Joseph’s on Glenmere Ave. on August 22, so that’s when we celebrate my birthday,” as Carl adds that people were born at home back then and didn’t keep good records, and that’s the date on his Baptismal certificate, then he proudly says, “Father Bernie from St. Joe’s is my nephew.”
Carl didn’t want anyone to make a “big deal” about a birthday and he didn’t want any kind of surprise either, so one can imagine his shock and pure delight when he entered the Florida Fire House on Sat., Jul. 14, where close to 100 guests we anxiously waiting to surprise him. The crowd cheered and cheered and congratulated Carl on reaching this incredible milestone.
“I met the Mayor,” announced Carl, who received a proclamation from Florida Mayor Daniel Harter, along with congratulatory certificates presented to him from Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton, Orange County Legislator Paul Ruszkiewicz, and Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus (not present), while friends and family looked on.
“My party was more than I ever expected,” Carl said with a glowing smile. “They came all the way from Tennessee, Maryland, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and New York too, just to wish me a Happy Birthday.”
Carl told this reporter about his birthday celebration while sitting in his sun room with his long-time neighbor, Liz Dietz. This reporter expected Liz to be assisting Carl, but as Liz put it, “There’s very little assistance!”
All she did that day was spend time trying to convince Carl that it wasn’t a good idea to get on the ladder to clean the gutters on his roof. It’s difficult for him not to do everything he once did. After all, only two years ago at 98 years old, he singlehandedly put a new roof on his shed.
Carl is every bit as energetic and enthusiastic now as he was long ago. He told stories about his life growing up in the Black Dirt Region, and about his mother, Kathryn Sosler, who immigrated from Warsaw when she was 14 years old. Carl’s father, Peter Heter, came from Poland in 1895 when he was only six years old. His parents met as teens and married in 1911.
Kathryn Heter gave birth to 13 children in their home on Round Hill Rd. Sadly, only 10 survived through to adulthood. Carl’s father was an onion farmer and leased the land they farmed. Carl’s family, like so many others at that time, lived and worked on farms. It was a constant struggle trying to survive for basic human needs. Their house was without heat, electricity, running water, a bathroom, or any of the many conveniences people take for granted today.
While Carl was growing up in rural America, the country was undergoing major changes. World War I came to an end in 1918 when Carl was born and soon after, women earned the right to vote. This new decade, those roaring 20s, brought dramatic social and political change and for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms.
The Nation’s wealth doubled during that decade and people were getting electricity, automobiles, radios, and for some, luxuries. But, for most folks, it was the day-to-day grind of working to put food on the table, and then came the Great Depression! All the while, life’s daily struggles went on for this young boy and his family. Carl and his five brothers slept in one bed.
“We had to sleep crossways so we could all fit on the bed. Sometimes it was so cold at night, I’d pull a rug from the floor to cover me…trying to get warm,” as Carl demonstrated a pulling motion with his arms as though reliving those cold winter nights.
When the straw in the mattress wore down and poked through and hurt, his mother would pull out the old straw and replace it.
“When you’d get up in the morning in the winter you could see the vapor coming out of your mouth,” said Carl, who added that he dressed quickly, then walked to the creamery and got two quarts of milk.
He and his five brothers and four sisters would have a bowl of oatmeal or something small before setting out on the long walk to school.
“Most of the time our shoes were worn bare. Sometimes, I’d slip newspaper in my shoe or a shingle blown from a roof, but when it was wet, I’d sit in school all day with cold, wet feet. If you wanted lunch, you had to go back home and it was over a mile, so I usually waited until I got home in the afternoon, or once in a while Ma would give me a nickel and I’d buy a small bag of oyster crackers. They were dry, but they’d fill me up until later,” said Carl. “Not a speck of food was ever wasted!”
When the family could no longer afford the 35 cents monthly tuition at St. Joe’s, Carl and his siblings attended the public school, Seward. Farming was a lot of work so everyone had daily chores before and after school. Later, when his father got a cow, the family had milk and could make butter, cheese, and sour milk (yogurt).
His mother told him, “Take care of the cow and the cow will take care of you,” so each morning Carl carried water from the well and chopped cow beets they grew on the farm to feed the cow. They never had a refrigerator, but sometimes his mother would buy a chunk of ice for 10 or 15 cents a pound from the Ice Man, who came around with his horse drawn cart. The cow provided the dairy products and they grew all their vegetables – onions, potatoes, carrots, rhubarb, turnips, and a variety of corn including popcorn!
Carl remembered coming home from school and dipping a piece of homemade bread in bacon grease, then he’d pick a scallion on the way, and said, “It was so good, I can almost taste it now.”
In the summer time they worked in the fields every day. Carl and his siblings would hope for rain so they didn’t have to work in the fields that day. Those long hot summer days meshed one into another as they would repeat the same routine day after day, waiting for the train whistle their mother said was their signal to head home again, earning blistered knees and sores on their bare feet.
“That black dirt was like hot ash on summer days,” Carl exclaimed, grimacing as he spoke about his mother scrubbing their feet with a hard, rough brush insisting they couldn’t go to bed dirty.
It wasn’t all work though as Carl talked about some of his favorite childhood memories like going to the Lyceum (now the Professional Building on Main St.) where they once or twice watched a silent film for a nickel admission. But the best was when he and his cousins walked to Goshen to meet another cousin who worked for a family there.
“She always had a little money and gave me and my two cousins each a quarter. We bought a movie ticket, popcorn, and candy – all for 25 cents and saw ‘Our Gang,’ a talkie,” said Carl, grinning as he recalled this fun-filled memory and the fact that they walked 10 miles round trip just to see a talking movie.
Carl also spoke about the many jobs he had through the years and always at least two at a time. He worked at West Point for a while serving the cadets and then as a roofer, tinsmith, school bus driver, auto mechanic at Warne Auto, and as a Supervisor for the NYS Training School for Boys (closed in the mid 1970s), and was a 25-year volunteer at Arden Hill Hospital (now part of Orange Regional).
“Where ever there was a dollar to be made, I was there,” said Carl.
Carl recalls the decades vividly and long ago memories of life in Florida. It was the 1950s that Carl and his wife, Ruth Kimiecik, had two children, Carl Edward and Ruth.
While talking about building his home next to his birth home Carl said, “I had the contractors build out the outside, then finished it, roof and all, and built all the walls and rooms on the inside too.”
Today, Carl’s home looks much the way it did in 1955. The kitchen is a true standout with not a scratch on the cabinets and the mosaic tile is as beautiful as ever.
This amazing centenarian asks himself what he did to live such a long life. There’s little to wonder when one learns that, until recently, Carl’s daily routine involved walking to Rookie’s on Main St. for lunch, then walking to the Dollar Tree for ice cream and on to Quick Chek for a cup of coffee, and sometimes even including a treat at Dunkin Donuts. It’s abundantly clear that Carl is still a busy man and independent too.
“My time was always used. I never wasted a minute,” said Carl.
When asked about the world today, Carl said, “You’re never too old to learn and I’ve learned more in later years. Now it’s go, go, go. Life was more peaceful and simpler back then.”
Carl Edward and Ruth, along with their spouse, partner, and Carl’s five grandchildren and six great grandchildren, and Liz next door, who is like family to Carl, will all celebrate this amazing and remarkable man again on Carl Heter Day on Aug. 22.