THE CENTENARIAN SECRET: Getting to know one of the valley’s living history lessons

By on April 2, 2013

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Leta Grace Deveraux nee Falkenstein, mother to Patty Ewing and the unofficial grandmother of Jackson’s Barker-Ewing river rafting enterprise, was born into a world that had yet to see its first radio broadcast much less TV and movies. Orville and Wilbur Wright were still showing off their new invention, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was still more of a concept, and the paint on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (which launched the cubism movement) was barely dry.

Leta’s family in Watonga, Oklahoma, did not have a Model T or a vacuum cleaner or even a toaster. Not because they were too poor. They hadn’t been invented yet. In her centenary-plus time on Earth, Leta has seen 19 U.S. presidents take office, both world wars, and Halley’s Comet – visibly every 76 years – twice. She spent her Sweet 16 doing the Charleston to Arthur Gibbs and His Gang.

I was on my way to meet the grand ol’ dame for her 105th birthday party. Talk about hard to buy for. What can you get someone who can literally say, “Been there, done that?”

Birthday cupcakes. No chance anyone was lighting 105 candles.

Birthday cupcakes. No chance anyone was lighting 105 candles.

Birthday girl

I never said a word to Leta at her birthday party. I don’t do well around the elderly. I remember as a kid my parents would drag me along when they brought the Eucharist to the Elm Manor nursing home. The place had that geriatric, antiseptic smell of urine, blood and bleach, which I’ve always associated with lingering death.

Plus, I never know what to say to old folks. I can’t bring myself to baby-talk them like I’m trying to coax a meow out of a stoic cat. They never hear you on the first try and even after repeating yourself I’m not sure they understand anything I’m saying. How could they? We’re from different worlds.

My hang-up comes from my own fear of growing old, of course. I know that. I already feel a little like “Stop the World – I Want to Get Off” sometimes. My life began with rotary dial telephones and VHF television. I’ve done my best to keep up with the Tweeting and Tumbling and Pinteresting but I know at some point it’ll be me covered in liver spots, all boney-fingered and shivering under an electric blanket with the thermostat set at 78.

How could I explain to Leta that the phone I was pointing at her was not only taking pictures but also recording video, which I would post seconds later to Facebook and a half-dozen other social media outlets, making her image accessible to anyone on the planet? She probably would have asked me, “Where are the wires?”

Clyde and Olevia Falkenstein, 1906

Clyde and Olevia Falkenstein, 1906

But I didn’t know Leta then. Most of what I saw of the woman on her 105th birthday party at the Ewing’s home in Jackson was a birthday girl fighting to stay awake amidst a bustling household of family, friends and an assortment of loose dogs. I heard stories about the guest of honor; mostly about how sharp she still is and how feisty she once was.

Photos were passed around. There was one of Leta taking part in the 2010 Old Bill’s Fun Run, leaning on her wheelchair. Another showed Leta and Jerry on their 34th wedding anniversary August 25, 1964. Older still, Leta’s parents – Clyde Carlton and Olevia Mae – stood rigidly in a sepia-toned shot from September 23, 1906. It was one of those classic old tintypes where a combination of painfully long exposure time and the relative newness of the gadget resulted in the subjects staring gravely into the camera with a stiff austerity that seemed to say, “I’m not sure what to do with my arms.” In the faded old photo, Olevia is standing next to a seated Clyde – fitting, as she would outlive him (by 9 years) as the Ball family women tend to do.

One photo in particular made the rounds that elicited nearly the same awestruck response from everyone who viewed it. Patty Ewing said the black-and-white was taken in Big Piney in the fall of 1930. In the shot, the newlyweds – Leta and her husband Jerome Deveraux – stand posed in front of their mounts before heading off on a hunting trip. The couple was presumably on their honeymoon – they were married August 25 – while a worldwide depression was beginning to take hold. The Deverauxes didn’t look like they cared much about that.

Jerome and Leta Deveraux. Big Piney 1930.

Jerome and Leta Deveraux. Big Piney 1930.

When the photo was passed to me I instantly understood everything I needed to know about Leta Deveraux.

In the shot, a brassy Leta stands hipshot, all high German cheekbones with a thumb tucked into a bitchin’ pair of oversized batwing chaps. Her ruggedly handsome husband stands alongside, pinching a roll-yer-own and holding the reins to a dapple grey a little long in the toe for my tastes but, man, does Jerome look good. Movie star good.

But it’s Leta that draws you in. All of 22 at the time, she’s a stone cold fox – cocksure and full of moxie. A slight smirk tugs at the corners of her mouth while her eyes display a boldness most women of her time did well to conceal. Sure, the gin-soaked Roaring Twenties loosened cultural styles but a lady still did not wear pants until Marlene Dietrich made it kosher later that decade. Leta was a down-home diva on the cutting edge of cowgirl couture.

Leta enjoys birthday cake.

Leta enjoys birthday cake.

If you asked Patty what word describes her mom best she would probably agree to “brash.” Patty’s daughter, Heather, said her grandmother’s always been high-spirited and maybe a bit sassy. As Leta forked a piece of birthday cake into her mouth with her left hand I asked Heather if she’d always been left-handed.

“I’m not sure,” Heather said. “I bet if you asked her she would claim she can use either hand. That’s just how she is.”

Family tradition

If you think 105 years is old, think again. It isn’t a long time for Leta, really. The Falkenstein family can do 105 standing on their head. Leta Grace traces her father’s side back to at least 1530 in Engstlatt, Baden Wurtemberg, Germany. The common surname meaning “falcon’s rock” is one of the oldest in recorded European history. As many as a half-dozen Falkenstein castles dotted the German countryside before 1100 AD.

Ludwig (1706-1771) was the first Falkenstein to come to America. He arrived with his family in Philadelphia on Sept. 27, 1746, aboard the Galley Ann. To pay for his six-month transatlantic voyage, Falkenstein submitted himself to an American named Richard Wister as an indentured servant. While many other immigrants absconded on similar commitments, Ludwig served out his eight years making buttons for his tailor sponsor.

As impressive as the Falkenstein lineage is, Leta’s mother, Olevia, descends from hearty “Ball” stock – a family line with equally impressive roots.

Olevia and Clyde Falkenstein golden wedding anniversary 1956.

Olevia and Clyde Falkenstein golden wedding anniversary 1956.

The Ball genealogy goes back to William Ball (1450-1480), Lord of Manor of Barkham, Berkshire, England. During a period of persecution, William IV and Hannah Ball nee Atherall came to America sometime between 1650 and 1657, settling in Lancaster County, Virginia, on a plantation known as Millenback. They would have a son, Joseph, who, in turn, would have a daughter from his second wife named Mary (Ball).

Mary would marry Augustine Washington on March 6, 1731, at the age of 23. The following year they had their first son, George. Mary would live to 81, long enough to see her firstborn become a famous general and the first president of the United States.

Ever westward

From here, Leta’s past gets even more humdrum and typical: Immigrant parents farming the land and pushing west with the expansion of an emergent country. The Falkensteins relocated to West Virginia for a time in 1817 and eventually landed in Missouri after travelling by covered wagon in 1882. It was there in Williamstown, Missouri, that Clyde met Olevia and the two married in 1906. They immediately pushed further west to Oklahoma where Leta was born.

In the spring of 1920, the year Babe Ruth was traded by Boston to the Yankees, the Falkensteins were once again on the move. Patty said her grandparents traveled by wagon from the family farm in Watonga, Oklahoma, to Laramie, even though cars were becoming more plentiful by then. They had their furniture and livestock – which included “Spot” the little painted Arabian horse, “Ruby” their milk cow, and “Tippy” the pet terrier – shipped via rail after they arrived.

Spot with Olevia and friend in buggy, 1907.

Spot with Olevia and friend in buggy, 1907.

They built a home three miles east of Laramie and ran a dairy farm for the next two decades, eventually moving to Colorado in 1941.

Leta Falkenstein as a sophomore at UW in 1928 yearbook.

Leta Falkenstein as a sophomore at UW in 1928 yearbook.

Leta attended the University of Wyoming as a “townie” in 1927-28. She graduated with a two-year “normal” degree qualifying her to teach. Leta’s future husband was a freshman at UW in 1926 on a boxing scholarship, but they didn’t meet until after college, Patty said. The team disbanded the following year so Jerome joined the ROTC band. He graduated in 1929. Leta and Jerome met while they were both teaching in Mountain View, Wyoming.

Leta’s little sister, Reta Mae Tate, died on New Year’s Eve 2010 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho at the age of 101. Clyda, the baby of the family, is still alive at 97 and living in the Lake Tahoe area. And Leta? I’m trying to come up with something to get her for her 106th birthday. Think she’ll make it? If I asked her that, she’d probably say something smartass like, “Hard tellin’ not knowin’.”

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