Centenarian has watched Ventura change
By Hannah Guzik 01/19/2012
When Bessie Carter came to Ventura, jobs were scarce, people distrusted big banks and families worried about having enough food.
Sound familiar? Think again. The year was 1931.
Carter was 19 when she arrived in the Montalvo neighborhood with her single mother, driven by the Great Depression.
Now, on her 100th birthday, the longtime resident is reflecting on the changes she’s seen and the history that seems to repeat itself.
“People say I’ve been lucky — well, I don’t think luck had anything to do with it,” she said. “I think it was hard work and really persevering.”
Carter, who turned 100 on Thursday, Jan. 19, is a rail-thin, whip-smart woman who has outlived just about everyone she first met in Ventura.
Fiercely independent, she still drives herself to doctors’ appointments and bridge games. Carter lived alone until last July, when she broke her hip and moved into an assisted-living apartment in Ventura.
“Bessie is incredibly sharp, has an uncanny memory, and is doing physically better than most 70-year-olds,” said friend Pam Grossman, senior Ventura County deputy district attorney. “… Bessie is a very upbeat, intelligent and inspiring individual and has many friends.”
Although unusual for a woman of her generation, Carter never had children and worked most of her adult life. Upon arriving in Montalvo from rural Colorado, she and her mother took seasonal jobs, picking spoiled lima beans off a conveyor belt in the fall, for example.
“Not oranges, not lemons, not strawberries — the big crop in Ventura County was lima beans, and lots of walnuts,” she said.
For the lima-bean job, she made a whopping 33 and 1/3 cents an hour.
“Times were very, very severe,” she said. “As opposed to the $10 an hour now. I can’t believe it. What I could have done with those $10.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 33 and 1/3 cents an hour in 1931 equates to $4.96 an hour today, far below California’s minimum wage.
Carter and her mother, Mima McMullin, initially stayed with relatives and lived off beef stew and vegetables they grew in their garden.
“Meat was very inexpensive, and you could get really good beef for 15 cents per pound,” Carter said. “We had an awful lot of stew.”
The family went to Ventura High School baseball games for entertainment, she said.
Montalvo, a bustling neighborhood today, was tiny back then and “Everybody knew everybody,” Carter said. The neighborhood held a few dozen houses, a meat market, hardware store and grocery on the corner of Grand Avenue and Ventura Boulevard, beside where Highway 101 now stands.
“There was no freeway then,” she said. “The freeway did away with a lot.”
A few years after moving to Ventura, Carter got a job working as a “soda jerk” at a malt shop.
In 1934, she married Paul Carter, who had been her boss at the lima-bean plant. The couple bought a furnished one-bedroom house on a half-acre lot on Sherwin Avenue for $17,000.
They lived there until World War II, when they went to Vallejo to work at a U.S. Navy submarine base.
“I was a Rosie the Riveter,” Carter said. “I enjoyed getting up in the morning and getting dressed and going to work.”
When the war ended, they were furloughed and they came back to Ventura to work in the civil service at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme. There, Carter eventually became a supervisor, overseeing the maintenance of punch-card machines.
Her husband died in 1980, but Carter has continued their tradition of visiting Laughlin, Nev., to play craps and gamble.
Last weekend, she and 40 friends celebrated her 100th birthday there.
“No one is more surprised than I that I’ve made it this long,” Carter said.
Carter admits that when she looks around at Ventura County today, she’s not too pleased. People are still scraping by, crime is higher and young people seem to be making bad decisions, she said.
“I’m not real happy with the world I’m looking at,” she said. “The economy is bad, and people do not understand thrift the way I do. If you’re working for 33 and 1/3 cents an hour, you’re going to think twice about buying a cell phone. It’s not a necessity.”
Much of Ventura’s open space has been bulldozed over in Carter’s lifetime, and she worries that what’s left of it will soon go, too.
“I tremble with fear that the beautiful fields I see between here and Santa Paula are going to be covered with roofs and cement,” she said. “Our beautiful valley is being covered and it’s really and truly a tragic crime to humanity.”
Still, the centenarian remains hopeful for the future and gives “young sprouts” two pieces of advice: stay positive and stay out of debt.
“Try so hard to stay out of debt,” she said. “Paying interest gets somebody else fat.
“But my biggest piece of advice is to have an upbeat attitude. Try to be pleasant with your friends and yourself. Really and truly, it makes a big difference.”