Oxford Vignettes: A Series of Unfortunate Events

By Cathy Schmidt

Bill and Sara Benson were close cousins of the family who lived up the street from us. Throughout their lives, they enriched those who surrounded them with their community involvement, faith, grace, and generous neighborly manners. Sara kept a journal every year of her life in Oxford and Captain Bill kept a daily weather book throughout his time as ferry captain of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. They were anchors in the town of Oxford, steadfast and kind, they were a pleasure to know.

 The Benson family has graciously decided to share some of these journal entries with the readers of Attraction. Smartly titled “Oxford Vignettes” by Susan Benson, I invite you to enjoy reading these daily snippets of life in Oxford in their day.

In this undated photograph, Sara and Bill Benson sit on their front porch in Oxford.

William Lindale Benson was born in Bellevue on October 20, 1908. Sara Valliant Newnam was born on August 10, 1913, and grew up in the Grapevine House in Oxford. They married on Christmas Day in 1936 at the home of Joseph Newnam, her brother. After living in an apartment above the “Towne Shoppe” in Oxford they moved to 315 North Morris Street in 1943, the year their son Dale Jr. was born. At their new home, Sara could watch Captain Bill and the ferry from her sink window and front porch. Captain Benson took over operations of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry in 1938. His summer schedule ran 80 to 105 hours per week. Only winter ice kept the ferry from running, and the only day he took off was Christmas Day, which was also his anniversary. He retired in 1974.

Saturday, July 2. A little cloudy early, hot and sunny. At 10:30 I took Hazel and Debbie to the hospital so Dr. Kinnamon could dress Deb’s mashed finger. Bill Newnam came from the airport and went in with Dr. K and Debbie. Hazel, Dale and I stayed outside. They found Deb’s hand much improved. We went on to the baby shop and Hazel and I got some clothes for the children, greatly reduced! By the time we got home I knew Dale wasn’t feeling well so I put him down for a nap. He napped for an hour and a half and kept quiet when he woke up. By dinner he said his throat was sore and wouldn’t eat anything, his temp. was 102. I put him right to bed and called Dr. Baybutt but found out he was out of town until July 17. Called Dr. Harrison but he was out to dinner and couldn’t be reached. I tried Dr. Kreck – no answer. So, I started Dale on aspirin at 1 a.m., he was awake with a fever.

Sunday, July 3. Dale’s Temperature was 101 at 8 a.m. and he said his throat wasn’t sore but his left ear hurt. I phoned Dr. Harrison at once and he said he’d be on down. Dale cried until he arrived at 11. He found his ear inflamed and gave him a shot of penicillin right away. Mother then stayed with Dale so I could go to Easton and get Sulfa and ear drops. After I returned he cried a little more and then fell asleep until 3. At 4:30 p.m. his temperature was 102. I read to him every spare minute I had.

Monday, July 4. Dale’s temperature down to 99. He kept quiet most of the day and we continued the medicine. Dale yelled down to me while I was doing dishes and I ran upstairs and my legs grew week when I realized that there was blood in his urine. I phoned Dr. Harrison and he said to stop the Sulfa and to give Dale 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda every 4 hours and bring Dale to the office at 8:30 tomorrow. Bill and I are upset about this, we don’t know what it means.

Tuesday, July 5. The Dr. confirmed the blood in the urine and we are done with Sulfa and he gave Dale another shot of Penicillin, and his ear drum was bulging, we will have to come back every other day for shots. We both took a nap when I got home and Dad watched him while I went to the store.

Wednesday, July 6. Dale seemed much better today. He took a nap while I ironed. After dinner, I bathed him and noticed he was covered in hives, caused by the penicillin. I was up and down all night with him because of the hives. Poor child – I feel sorry for him.

Thursday, July 7. Cooler, with showers this morning. Today was Doug Hank’s 6th birthday party and Dale was too sick to go. Clyde Pope made the first trip with the ferry for Bill and ran it for the rest of the day, giving him breaks for meals. Bill sure enjoyed the extra sleep. Bill stayed with Dale while I went to Lucy’s for a shampoo. She told me that Aunt Bessie fell last week and broke her left arm at the wrist. I stopped at Aunt Mary’s on the way home and found out that Uncle Will hasn’t been too good since Tuesday, at times he seemed to lose the use of his right hand and arm. This morning he had a slight stroke and can’t talk, his blood pressure is 240 – Dr. thinks it’s only a matter of time before he dies. Kitty (his daughter) is coming tomorrow. Mrs. Smithers, a nurse, is also coming tomorrow. Uncle Will is so restless. Dad, Dale and I went to Dr. this afternoon since he has been crazy with the hives from his face to his feet from the penicillin. Dr. Harrison said his ear is better but he still needs more medicine so he will start him on a new drug R-o-my-i-sin, a gold-colored capsule that is quite expensive, $5.65 a bottle. Dr. Harrison said he is quite certain that Dad has a heart condition and Dad says he doesn’t, so…to settle it all I’m to take Dad to the hospital at 1:30 tomorrow for an electrocardiogram. Dale’s new medicine causes nausea.

Friday, July 8. At 1:00, Mother, Dad, Dale and I went to the Easton hospital. Miss Tayler (Mrs. Hearn now) did Dad’s electrocardiogram. We saw Aunt Bessie while we were there and took her some flowers. Mary E. and Katherine Valliant were there. We came home by way of Royal Oak and stopped at Bellevue. Mother and Dad went upstairs with Aunt Mary to see Uncle Will. He is unconscious and growing weaker. At 8 p.m. I walked up home (The Grapevine House) to get Dale to put him to bed and found mother and Aunt Susie on the back porch. Mother said Dad had just had an attack – he was on the couch in the living room. I went and found him in great pain, then he seemed to get worse. Joe came and I ran home to call Dr. Harrison. When I got back Dad was having pain in his legs. I took his shoes and socks off and rubbed his feet, they were cold. I thought for sure Dad was going to die before Uncle Will. It was wonderful how fast Dr. Harrison got here (Mary and Aulby saw him on the road and said he was really traveling!). Dr. H had checked Dad’s cardiogram and he said he definitely had a heart condition, that it wasn’t too bad now, but if he didn’t slow down, it would be serious. He told him he had to lie flat in bed for a week, couldn’t even sit up to eat, couldn’t have company and had to be perfectly quiet, but he could eat anything he wanted. Bill came up from the ferry and he and Joe carried him upstairs.

Saturday, July 9. Family was in and out to check on Dad all day. I walked around in a daze it seemed. Dad had one slight attack today. I fed him breakfast and brought he and mother ice cream tonight. Bill lived on sandwiches today at the ferry, I packed him one for supper and one for dinner.

Sunday, July 10. Dad had three attacks before 9 a.m. After that he was quiet. People came after church to check in on him. Dr. Harrison saw Dad this afternoon and said he thought his condition had improved some. I made crab cakes for Dad and took Bill some for dinner tonight on the ferry. Young adults put on their program of sacred music tonight. All that heard it said it was wonderful.

Monday, July 11. I helped mother all day with laundry. She got a phone call around 8 p.m., Uncle Will had died. Mother and Dad took it very well, for the condition Uncle Will has been in the last two years it is a blessing for his mind would never have been any better and he could have gotten so much worse. Dad felt pretty good all day today.

Tuesday, July 12. At 9 a.m. Mother phoned. Dad had five attacks since 5 a.m. I went to Easton to get him more medicine. He didn’t have any attacks after that. I was really worried about Dale tonight. He had been coughing so much this evening at bed time and I found both feet just as wet as they could be, he got them wet while down at the shore with Bill this afternoon. Just before he went to sleep, he said his head was chilly. I took his temperature – no fever.

Thursday, July 14. Showers in the morning, sunny in the afternoon. Dad had a real good day today. At 1:00 I took Dale to Jessie’s to play with Teddy. Gertrude stayed with Dad while Mother, Joe, Bill and I went across the ferry in our car. Uncle Will looked really good and we’ve never seen so many flowers – both sprays and baskets. The service was at 2 at the house and Reverend Roberts led the funeral, it was very well attended. The pall bearers were, Joe and Bill Newnam, Howard Newnam, Lockwood Hardcastle, Jerry and Robert Valliant. He was buried in Easton near Aunt Netta (first wife). The town was sprayed with DDT this morning.

Friday, July 15. Dad didn’t have any attacks today. Dr. Harrison said he could sit up in the chair in his room and also sit up in bed and feed himself. Mrs. Sheffield stopped by to see Dad today.

Saturday, July 16. Dale threw up at lunch – I took him to Dr. Harrison and he has another ear infection. I had to stop at the store and he threw up there too. Dad had another good day. The Methodist parsonage sold for $7,000.

Sunday, July 17. At 1 a.m. Bill and I were awakened by a brawl in the front street. Apparently one of the town boys had come back from the Navy to find his girlfriend engaged to someone else (an out-of-towner). He said he was “going to kill” the other fella, but the Oxford Boys were holding him back and trying to reason with him. It eventually broke up. I kept Dale in all day because he had a fever. Dad had company this afternoon: William and Billy Valliant.

Monday, July 18. Dad had three attacks early this morning. Dale’s ears are hurting and he has a fever. I took Dale to the Dr. in Easton and his one ear is infected and the other has a bulging ear drum, so we are taking him off of the medicine he is on and putting him on a new medicine. 24 capsules cost $22.50. By the time we got home his temperature was 103. I gave him a sponge bath and a whole aspirin and his fever went down one degree. He didn’t fall asleep until 12:45 a.m. and then I had to wake him at 2:30 a.m. for his medicine. He was so restless and I was up with him until 4:30. Bill got Clyde Pope to run the ferry so he could take the necessary paperwork to Easton for the sale of the former M.P. Parsonage. I did mother’s and our wash, and starched and ironed until 10:30 p.m. Johnson Fortenbaugh delivered to Aulby and Margaret Bates this afternoon their new dark blue coupe – two doors with small backseat – a Ford! It sure is a beauty!

Wednesday, July 20. Dale is better today. Aunt Mary, Aunt Katie, Pauline, Little Joe, and Margie Lehman were over to see Dad today. Bill went to a church meeting tonight. Dr. Harrison said Dad could come downstairs tomorrow.

Thursday, July 21. Dad had breakfast in bed and in the middle of the morning got dressed and came downstairs and had a wonderful day, spending most of his time on the porch. All day folks were stopping by to see him, Mrs. Cox, Aunt Susie and many others. Fran stopped by on his way home from the boatyard. I did mother’s laundry but didn’t get to stay long because Dale was still house bound with his ear infection. Joe was down to visit and Dad commented to him how good his meals tasted because he was able to eat them downstairs. After supper, Virginia Fisher took mother and Dad some orange ice she made. A little after 9, Dad said he’d like to go up for the night. Mother asked him if he needed any help up the stairs and he said he was going to take it easy. Mother went to the kitchen to peel the peaches for tomorrow’s breakfast and then she’d be up.

Sara Benson’s father died that night, aged 70. The next four pages of her diary are blank. Her father, William Spry Denny Newnam was buried on July 25, 1949. He was the son of the late Joseph Henry Newnam and Mary Eliza Parsons. He was born in Royal Oak but after his marriage, he purchased the “Grapevine House” in Oxford, which was previously his parents’ home. From his obituary: We have lost a citizen who lived a worthy life marked with the homely virtues of kindness and honorable dealings.” He was this author’s great uncle.

Sara’s father William Spry Denny Newnam, Sr. is pictured here on June 25, 1949, tending to his garden behind the Grapevine House in Oxford one month before his funeral. The photograph was taken by his son, Joe Newnam.

In case you were wondering…

In 1986, it was advised that children not be given aspirin because it may cause Reye’s Syndrome, a rare but serious condition that can cause swelling in the brain and liver.

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1120628/#:~:text=Use of aspirin in children, advice to doctors in 1986.

An effective insecticide, DDT was sprayed worldwide, including Oxford, post WWII until the 1970s. Environmentalist Rachel Carson raised the red flag about DDT in her 1962 book Silent Spring. She noted that DDT bioaccumulates and biomagnifies up the food chain and raised concerns that the pesticide may have long-lasting effects on wildlife and possibly on humans.

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737010/#:~:text=The recent literature shows a, and impaired neurodevelopment in children.

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