Building their own neighborhood
It’s hard to find a neighborhood where your kids can play with bunches of other kids in wide open spaces, with maybe a pond or two, a corral with a horse and some ponies, and a pavilion complete with a concession stand. If you can’t find such a paradise, maybe you could create one of your own. That’s what Josephine and Ben Gibbs did.
Josephine was born in Franklin in 1929, to Herbert and Marion Lawson. Josephine, her four sisters, and one brother grew up there. Herbert worked at the oil refinery and Marion did day work in people’s homes.
“Grandma Lawson lived up the street from us,” Josephine said. “Her mother, Grandma Jones, lived across the street from her. I remember seeing Grandma Lawson walking down her steps to the street, and Grandma Jones walking up her steps. I was just a youngster, but I was tickled to see them there. Grandma Jones lived to be 104.”
Josephine loved to hear Grandma Jones tell stories. She was particularly fascinated with a tale handed down from one of her ancestors. The incident had to have been during the Revolutionary War, when the original story teller was a child.
“The British came into the plantation where her mother worked. She remembered a woman begging them not to destroy her home and the plantation. She was nothing but a little girl, but she remembered wrapping herself up in her mother’s apron.”
While in high school, Josephine loved to sing. After singing for one high school broadcast, she was thrilled to receive three bouquets of roses.
“There were no names on them,” she said. “The tag just said they were from secret admirers.”
During her late teen years, Josephine had a bout with rheumatic fever.
“It was very, very painful,” she said. “My muscles were sore, and every joint ached.”
Fortunately, she recovered without any lasting effects.
The Church of God was a central part of the family’s life. Josephine enjoyed attending the 3rd District Conventions that were held in various cities in Pennsylvania and New York. On March 17, 1948, at one of these conventions, she met a young man who belonged to the Church of God in Sharon. His name was Ben Gibbs.
Ben’s father Mortimer had a trucking business, hauling trash and ashes from people’s homes. Ben’s brothers went into their father’s business, but Ben never wanted to do that. After returning from service in World War II, he started his own business, hauling dirt and topsoil. Before long he expanded into paving, making him the first African-American paving contractor in the Shenango Valley.
Ben and Josephine were married on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1949. Three other couples they knew also got married that year: Wilby and Dorothy Askerneese; Frank and Dorothy Matthews; and James and Helen Mitchell. The four couples called themselves the 49ers, and did a lot of things together through the years.
Ben and Josephine moved into a house on Division Street. A year or two later they bought two adjacent farms in Hickory Township off Spangler Road, one from the McClendons and the other from the Spanglers. They moved into an old farmhouse on one of them, and their family continued to grow. They had nine children in 16 years: Eric (Jan. 1950), Ben (Jan. 1952), Brenda (July 1953), Joette (July 1955), Guy (Jan. 1957), Valerie (Oct. 1959), Byron (Feb. 1962), Rhonda (Jan. 1964), Basil (Jan. 1966).
Ben built a new house for the family, finishing it in 1962. He subdivided some of his property and sold lots to other families. Most of them had many kids.
“We had the most with nine,” Joette said. “The Pleasants had seven, Culps had six, Flints had four, and Gunns had four. We all played together and created our own fun.”
“It was like the Little Rascals,” Brenda said, laughing, “but we were better than them!”
“We made our own hot rods, club houses, whatever,” Joette said. “Anybody’s yard was game for kickball. My dad and mom always loved kids, so Dad dug two ponds. One was a swimming pond. Dad put sand around it to make it like a beach. He built a pavilion, and a corral with one horse and two ponies. He would bring kids from town in the back of his truck to get them off the streets. They would go swimming in the pond. He had a nursing station and a dressing room. He really had it fixed up. The pavilion had a concession stand with candy and chips and arts and crafts and stuff. The adults in the neighborhood would help out, and the church, too. They called it Skyline Summit Park.”
After the swimming pool started filling up with fish, Ben put in an above-ground pool with a deck behind the new house. The ponds continued to be used for fishing.
The Gibbs family always had dogs – sometimes very big dogs.
“We had St. Bernards that we named Mr. Man and Uncle Sam,” Josephine said. “I was sitting down here at the house, and I noticed that one of them kept coming down, trying to get my attention. I thought, let me follow this dog to see what is up. He took me up to the swimming pool that had a deck. Mr. Man had fallen through the ice into the water and couldn’t get out. He must have given Uncle Sam a message to come and get me. I had to pull him out.”
As if there weren’t enough people in the Gibbs house, they always seemed to find room for others who needed a place to stay.
“Brenda brought friends in,” Joette said. “And Guy had people at work whose family didn’t want them and whatever, so they would come here and live – not just for a week, but months. We had a lady from India who was with us like nine months. We had people we didn’t even know. The rest of us were growing up and moving out, but every time I called somebody else was staying in the house.”
Ben and Josephine shared whatever they had, even though they never had a lot of money.
“We were poor but we didn’t know it,” Joette said. “My mom didn’t shop at Penney’s or Kauffman’s or Sears. She shopped at Treasure Island, and at Jimmy’s Department Store on Idaho.”
With so many kids, they sometimes had to do some emergency shopping.
“On Sunday mornings we’d be getting ready to go to church,” Joette said, “and somebody couldn’t find shoes because they lost them between Friday and Sunday. Our church was on Cedar in Farrell, between Idaho and French. We’d have to stop into Jimmy’s Department Store to buy a pair of shoes.”
Josephine acted as secretary/receptionist for her husband’s paving and hauling business, taking calls from people who needed work done. And even though she was busy raising kids, she earned extra money by selling cosmetic products for Studio Girl, Avon, and Mary Kay. She was also very artistic, creating floral arrangements and feather Christmas trees, which she sold. She didn’t work outside the home until she started working at GE about 1974, when her youngest son was in second or third grade.
That was about the time of Ben’s and Josephine’s 25th wedding anniversary.
“We got together with the other 49ers and planned a surprise party for them,” Joette said. “They took my parents to dinner at the Holiday Inn. Everybody else came here. We parked cars up the back, by the garage, and since it was dark they couldn’t be seen. We told Frank Matthews that when everybody was here, we would call down to the Holiday Inn and ask for him. He would tell Dad there was an emergency and he needed to come home. When they came in the door, everyone said ‘Surprise!’ Dad said, ‘Wooow! Where did everybody come from? Where did they park their cars?’ It was great.”
Ben passed away in 1987, but Josephine continued working at GE until she retired in 1994. In spite of this remarkably busy life, Josephine found time to be active in the Cedar Avenue Church of God. She taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, sang in the choir, and worked with the women’s missionary ministry.
Josephine and Ben’s kids are leading active, involved lives in an astonishing variety of fields. Eric and Ben had worked with their father at Gibbs Paving, Inc. Eric now works at CCL Container. Ben is an Associate Minister and does counseling. Brenda was the first female journeyman dye maker at General Motors Lordstown, and is a musician in church. Joette was an accountant for 19 years, and now runs a day care in her home. Guy, the former Hickory High School football coach who guided them to the state championship in 1989, is pursuing a number of interests, including catering, photography, and videography. Valerie is a health and physical education teacher in Columbus, Ohio. Byron is a chef and musician in the Lowell, Massachusetts area. Rhonda earned a doctorate in religious studies and travels the world ministering to young people. She also teaches tennis in Pleasant, California, where she is starting a tennis academy. Basil is involved in theater in Philadelphia.
Josephine, still surrounded by many of her children, is enjoying retirement in the house that Ben built in the middle of the neighborhood they created.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009