Clarice Hurner Pearson was the oldest woman in Oregon when she died at the age of 110 in March, 2009.  Below is a picture of Clarice at her 109th birthday party in Corvallis, Oregon.  Next to it, courtesy of her son Erwin Pearson, is a picture of Clarice as a young girl in Carlton, Oregon.

This article is as it appeared in the Philomath Bulletin newspaper.  An abbreviated version of the story appeared in the August 2008 issue of Ruralite Magazine.
Clarice Hurner Pearson, an Oregon Treasure

By Joseph Fulton (written in 2008)


   In a quiet room on West Hills Drive, just outside of Philomath, an elderly woman passes another day in the familiarity of her memories.  On July 7th of this year she passed the 40,000th day of her incredible life.  But while we can count the many days she has spent on this earth, it is impossible to calculate the storage of memories inside her mind.  It is those memories and her remarkable ability to recall them that makes Clarice Hurner Pearson an Oregon treasure.

Clarice Pearson is just six years younger than the oldest person in the world and she is one of the few remaining people who can rightfully claim to have lived in three different centuries.  That statistical oddity will not repeat itself until 2100 when a few fortunate children born in the 1980s and 90s are honored as centenarians and super-centenarians.  What makes Clarice especially important to us here in the Pacific Northwest is that many of her memories are Oregon’s memories.  Although she has done a great deal of traveling during her long life, celebrated on a carefully marked world map in her apartment, she has always made Oregon her home.

Clarice Hurner was born on December 17, 1898 in Portland. The population of the United States was 76 million.  It is 303 million today.  William McKinley was president of the United States.  Victoria was the ruling monarch of the United Kingdom. Many Oregon luminaries now deceased, like Wayne Morse, Linus Pauling and Tom McCall, had yet to be born when Clarice was walking down the wooden sidewalks of Portland with her parents.  In February 2009 Oregon will celebrate 150 years of statehood.  On the day Clarice Hurner was born, it was 39 years young.

Living Americans in 1898 included Harriet Tubman, Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill, Chief Joseph, Geronimo, Susan B. Anthony, Alexander Graham Bell, former first lady Julia Grant (the widow of President U.S. Grant), William and Henry James and the great Oregon heroine Abigail Scott Duniway.  Other Americans born in 1898 included the writer Stephen Vincent Benet and the composer George Gershwin. Amelia Earhart was born in 1897.  Hemingway entered the world in 1899.  

Clarice was born before the last nine U.S. presidents.

As of 1898 the young Jack London had yet to publish a book.  In fact, he had just returned from an unsuccessful attempt to strike it rich in the Yukon Gold Rush.

Basketball was a brand new sport having been invented in Massachusetts two years before Clarice was born.  The balls were shot into peach baskets.  A ladder was placed next to the basket so that a referee could put the ball back into play.

The United States became a world power in 1898, and Teddy Roosevelt a national hero, during the Spanish-American War.  At the time there were many surviving veterans of the Civil War, the Mexican-American War and even a few from the War of 1812.  Catherine Damon, the last Revolutionary War widow, was still collecting her husband’s pension in 1898!

Most roads were unpaved and it goes without saying that automobiles and airplanes were a luxury of the future.  Clarice entered a world without radios or televisions and, for most Americans, without electric lights or appliances.  The first electric streetlights Clarice ever saw where along a promenade at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland. It is one of two memories she has of that great Portland event held 103 years ago.  She also remembers in meticulous detail a life-sized model of a milking cow, made completely out of butter.  A photograph in an old Exposition souvenir book carefully preserved in Oregon State University’s Valley Library validated her memory of the unusual sculpture down to the little kitten stealing a drink of the milk.

Clarice was the daughter of Alexander Hurner and Luella Barton.  Hurner was a Swiss immigrant who arrived in America with his brothers Fred and Louis in 1873.  The Hurners made their way across the United States and settled in Portland by 1890 where Alex found work as a dishwasher.

Luella Barton, Clarice’s mother, had deeper roots in America.  Her grandparents were from Massachusetts.  Her father was born in Missouri. She was related to Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, who was still living, and apparently in contact with Luella, when Clarice was born.  In fact, Clarice was christened Clara, but she grew to dislike the name and changed it to Clarice as a young adult.   Luella’s parents left Missouri in the mid-1880s and settled briefly in Lewis County, Washington before moving to Portland where Luella met Alex Hurner.  

Around 1900 Clarice and her parents moved to Yamhill County, near the town of Carlton, where her father found work in a grain warehouse.  He also built roads.  Carlton was, and still is, a sleepy little town near McMinnville.  Today the rural area southwest of Portland is famous for its wineries, but when Clarice was a child hop farms were more common than vineyards. Vegetables and livestock were plentiful and the local farmers were so self-sufficient that Clarice does not recall much suffering during the Great Depression.

Her uncle, Louis Hurner, raised wheat, barley, and oats, and he maintained a big prune dryer for his orchard of Italian prunes.  Clarice loved hot prunes right out of the dryer and she consumed plenty of canned pig meat, which she also found delicious. Carlton even had a “Poor Farm” during the Depression that provided food and temporary shelter for those people who were adversely affected by the economic woes.

Of course, her memories reach long before the Great Depression.  She remembers the San Francisco earthquake and the sinking of the Titanic and still shakes her head in sad disbelief as if both events happened just recently.  Her trip to the 1905 Portland Exposition predates both the earthquake and the Titanic, but even that is not her first historic memory.  She also recalls the big news on her fifth birthday, December 17, 1903, when two brothers named Wilbur and Orville Wright flew an airplane for the first time in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Many of her memories are painful.  She survived the 1918 influenza pandemic, but had to nurse her own mother back from the brink of death.  And she knew of many who did not survive that mysterious plague.  At the same time her boyfriend, and future husband, Emil Pearson, was fighting in World War I, a cataclysmic event that she describes simply as awful.

When Clarice reached adulthood American women were still deprived of the fundamental right to vote.  That changed with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 and Clarice, at age 22, became one of the first women in American history to vote in a national election.  She cast her vote for Ohio’s Warren G. Harding who won the presidency on the strength of woman voters who were weary of the war years under Woodrow Wilson and were ready for a change.  

Clarice was less impressed with the 18th Amendment, which ushered in the ill-fated Prohibition era of gangsters, speakeasies and moonshine.

“Prohibition didn’t work,” Clarice bluntly declares, “because anyone with a kitchen stove could make beer.”

By her own admission, Clarice was not adversely affected by the Great Depression and therefore was not enamored with Franklin D. Roosevelt or his New Deal.  In fact, she regularly voted for the Republican ticket.  Nevertheless, when asked to name her favorite president she picks a Democrat, John F. Kennedy.  It is worth noting that Clarice became a senior citizen (65 years old) just 25 days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  She was 70 when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated.

Remarkably, Clarice Hurner Pearson is a living, breathing participant of the entire 100 years of 20th century American history and yet it is not her recollection of well-known historic events that makes her such a unique treasure for the state of Oregon.  It is the little things she can recall: The people, places and everyday occurrences that are otherwise lost by the deaths of all of her contemporaries.

Clarice remembers many of the people who lived in Carlton between 1906 and 1920.  Though her memories are tinged with the gossip and prejudices of the time, they are spoken with a fondness that reveals her genuine affection for virtually every person she has met throughout her long life.  For example, she recalls that the Winkler family operated a confectionary store and their attractive daughter Vera sold a lot of candy because, “All the boys in town were sweet on her.”

Clarice often refers to her early Carlton neighbors by their ancestors’ nation of origin.  Her father was Swiss, her husband’s kin were Swedes and there were the Scots, the Finns, the Irish and the Chinese.  The complexities of immigration seem to vex many Americans in the 21st century.  But Clarice truly lived in a land of immigrants.

The Chinese workers made quite an impression on a young Clarice because they dressed so differently and spoke so strangely.  The Chinese were often housed in a barn or outbuilding on the larger farms and did their cooking outside.  They kept to themselves, not necessarily by choice but by cultural extremes.

James Robertson, the Scottish jeweler, was an important citizen because he also fixed watches and clocks.  The problem was that Robertson was just too talkative.  “He was a nice guy,” contends Clarice, “ but he felt no need to work as long as he could talk.  He never got anything done unless you stayed with him until he finished the job.”  Robertson was also well known as an outstanding gardener and his brother John was one of the town’s blacksmiths.  Mayor Randolph Wardle was a blacksmith, too.  Clarice politely reminds her listeners that the blacksmiths were important because most things were handmade.

The town’s doctor was a man named Morrison and he was wonderful, “If he could only leave the bottle alone.”  Consequently, the good doctor missed his share of calls and the next nearest doctor was in McMinnville. Clarice remembers the gossip of decades gone by.  “One night he was drinking,” she recounts with a bit of a smile, “and he drove his car into a ditch.  He lost a piece of his nose in the accident but he claimed it was dirty so he didn’t want it anyway.”  It must have been big news.  At the time Dr. Morrison owned the only car in town.

Her memories reveal how integral the railroads were to people of the early and mid-twentieth century.  The five o’clock arrival of the evening train from Portland was a town event.  Virtually everyone met the train to see who had come from the big city to visit; to get the mail and news; listen to politicians and perhaps even hop aboard for the return to the Rose City.  According to Clarice, one could jump aboard at 5 PM, go to Portland for dinner and a show, and then return to Carlton on the midnight train.

When the Hurners wanted to travel where the train could not take them they simply hitched a horse to a buggy and took off. Their favorite destination was the Oregon Coast, but the mountain roads were little more than dirt trails and it took them three days to get there.

“Most people didn’t take that long,” quips Clarice, “but my mother always took along everything but the kitchen sink.”  Their favorite stops were Pacific City, Woods (no longer a town), and Cape Kiwanda.  They would usually rent a tent house, which consisted of a wooden floor with canvas walls and roof.  Then they would take three more days to get back to Carlton.

Clarice recalls her schoolteacher, Maggie Triplitt, as a cranky old maid who never found time to marry because she was too busy getting her drunken brother out of trouble.  Consequently, when the students would say, “Good Morning, Miss Triplitt,” the teacher would bark back that if she had to say good morning to all of them she would get hoarse.  Miss Triplitt would discipline the girls by pulling their pigtails, though Clarice claims with a smile that she never got in trouble and she still gives the beleaguered Miss Triplitt credit for being a good teacher.

The school itself burned down in 1906, as Clarice correctly recalls, just after getting a new paint job.  The students attended makeshift schools in a couple of churches for the next two years until another schoolhouse could be built.

A year after the school burned down the town’s only hotel went up in flames.  Clarice watched the fire and found it odd that those escaping the fire carried pillows out with them but threw beautiful bowls and pitchers out of the windows.  In fact, there were so many fires in Carlton that people started to think they had a “fire bug” in town, which was a polite way of saying an arsonist.  During the time of frequent fires it was discovered that most of the doors in public buildings opened in, making even fire drills difficult.  The doors were changed to open out.

Clarice still marvels at the difference that a light bulb made in their home when rural electrification came to Oregon in the 1930s, but her family did not rush out to expand their use of electricity with the exception of an electric stove.   Clarice knew how to cope without electricity.  She hand-washed clothes and hung them on the porch to dry, even if it meant frozen garments on occasion.  Her family didn’t need a refrigerator or an icebox for that matter.  They would simply place perishables like milk and butter into a bucket and lower them down to rest on top of the cool water in their deep well.  Clarice would sell milk to the local creamery in exchange for butter, but she made her own cottage cheese.

Clarice Hurner married Emil Pearson shortly after his return from combat duties in World War I.  She relates that her husband didn’t smoke before the war, but did afterwards.  It didn’t seem to keep him down.  He lived to be 96 years old. They were married for 74 years.  The couple worked hard as they raised two boys, and they traveled far and wide after their sons became adults.  Clarice has visited all fifty states and all fifty state capitals along with dozens of countries throughout the world.  

Her son Erwin became a professor of veterinary sciences at Cornell before accepting a professorship at Oregon State University. Her son Roger makes his home in Arizona where he deals in real estate after selling a computer records company. Clarice still owns part of the original family farm in Carlton, but she moved to Corvallis in 2005.  As one might expect from a woman her age, Clarice has grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Her grandson Kyle was a basketball and track star at Philomath High.

Some of the younger members of in the Pearson clan may not realize the significance of having such an elder matriarch in their own family, but the significance is clearly appreciated by her son Erwin and his wife Marianne, who never miss a Mother’s Day, birthday or other important anniversary.  They often think, understandably so, that it could be the last such event.  But Clarice keeps on surprising.

Clarice lived on her farm in Carlton until she was 101 years old. She does not sound boastful when she claims matter-of-factly, that she could do anything on the farm, which included operating tractors.  But she was also a workingwoman in town.  Back in the 1920s she was employed at the local bank.  That building still stands in Carlton.  It is now a wine-tasting business.  A few months before she turned 109, Clarice went back to Carlton with Erwin and Marianne.  They visited many of her old haunts, including the building where she once worked.  She was surprised to see the old bank safe still in use, although now it protects bottles of wine instead of money.  She looked at the safe thoughtfully and then exclaimed, “ I know the combination to that safe.”  And much to the surprise of the current owner, she had it exactly right.




Copyright 2008 by Joseph E. Fulton
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