Alumna Betty Mull shares fond memories of life at Bethany Children’s Home
By Jennifer Koch, archivist at UCC-related Bethany Children’s Home in Womelsdorf, Pa.
Koch recently sat down with former Bethany resident Betty Mull, her brother Edward, and their family. Betty came to Bethany at the age of 2, in 1927. Below are some of Betty’s thoughts and memories of Bethany. Edward also chimes in from time to time.
“Before [Betty and Edward’s sister] Ruth passed, we talked fondly of Bethany,” Betty said. “We said when we heard the challenges Bethany was facing to change and meet the needs of today’s child, that they should change the facility from a home for youth into a retirement facility for us old folks. Ruth and I would have moved back in a heartbeat. It holds some of our happiest memories.”
Betty came to Bethany on Oct. 12, 1927, when she was only 2 years old, and she lived there until she graduated high school and moved in with the Miley family as a housekeeper and caretaker. She remained with Mr. and Mrs. Miley until their passing in the mid 1980s.
Betty, born April 8, 1925, is the third oldest living Bethany orphan and is as spirited and informative as ever. It was a pleasure sitting with her, her brother Edward — the oldest living Bethany orphan — her niece, daughter, and granddaughter to discuss her fond memories of Bethany.
“My first memory is people wanting to adopt me and I remember at 4 years old being adopted and taken to a new home and having my hair completely washed,” Betty recalled. “I was taken back to the home very soon after the adoption because I cried every waking hour I was with them and they were afraid of what would happen. They had adopted my baby sister, Arlene, and she became very ill and passed away; they had hoped I would fill the space, however, it was not to be,” Betty said.
“I remember being returned to Bethany; I was wearing a brand-new coat and hat, and a parasol, and had a silver salt and pepper shaker. I must have been fascinated with it and she let me keep it.
“When I was five, I moved to Leinbach Cottage [today the oldest structure on Bethany’s campus still used to house residents]. Frick Cottage [built in 1896, it still stands today] had been the baby cottage. The first job I remember is taking a dustpan and brush and cleaning the steps from top to bottom. I remember the matron told me, don’t push the dirt all the way down the steps, dust each step and put the dirt from each step into the pan. That was my first job.”
After that, she remembers that everyone had a certain job they had to do.
Each morning, the girls would line up two by two before going into the dining room and say a bible verse and a prayer. When she was 5, Betty learned from hearing the other girls, and she would say, “I will lift up my knife onto the hills.” When she was 7, she was amazed when she learned to read that the verse was actually, “I will lift up my eyes onto the hills.” From the ages of 5-7, she said the wrong verse.
In the dormitories, there were 10 girls in one and 11 in the other. As the youngest, Betty had the bed nearest the door, and each year she moved further from the door. When she got older, she would move to the other dormitory.
One night she remembered not being able to sleep; there were other girls – Louise Baker and Gloria Fulmer – who also couldn’t sleep. Betty went into the bathroom and got toilet paper, got it wet and rolled it up. The girls would throw it one to the other until they got tired and fell asleep. The next morning, the matron came in and she knew right away who had done it because the pile of droppings were scattered in front of the three girls’ beds. That night there were no movies for the girls; they had to stay back from the weekly Saturday night movie as their punishment. All the girls came home and had a toy, but the next day Mrs. Robbins gave the three girls toys even though they had missed out.
When the girls were small, they would go to Bethany’s Knerr Cottage because it had an auditorium. Each child would get a gift. Ruth and Betty each got a doll; Ruth’s doll had a red and white polka dot dress and Betty’s had green and white polka dots.
“We each got one gift as a child. We were always allowed to go out into the nice room that had the small table and chairs for children,” Betty said. “Matron Ms. Robbins’ father would come to visit and tell us stories. One Christmas, I remember he was reading The Night Before Christmas and he got to the part about Santa coming down the chimney and I said, ‘Santa comes down there?’
“We would come down and we each had a wooden box of our own; then later we got lockers. They would hang a stocking and in it was an orange in the bottom and little toys or sticks of candy. I really don’t remember many things about holidays except Easter. We each got a basket and the baskets were hiding up behind the trees and someone would guard the baskets because the boys would steal them.
“When we got older there were fireworks. One year, Rev. Gebhard [Bethany’s 8th superintendent] was setting off the firecrackers when one went up and came back down at him and landed in the box. They ended up shooting in every direction. We thought it was wonderful, but Rev. Gebhard didn’t know what in the world to do about it.
“On the Fourth of July, we always had races. I would usually win the running races. I tried the broad jump — I would jump, but I would go forward and fall backwards. The year before we left, I tried everything even if I wasn’t good at it.
“The last year they put four watermelons in the pond, and we would fight to get them out. I remember this year Ruth didn’t participate, but she yelled to me, ‘Hey sis, look over there,’ and there were two girls struggling with the watermelon. I swam over to help them and we got it out and split up the watermelon between the four of us, because of course Ruth got a portion for pointing it out … a finder’s fee. I always gave things to my sister Ruth. They also gave candy bars for prizes for the races.”
Betty was at Bethany for a little over 15 years.
When she moved to Bethany’s Santee Hall, she remembers the hiding of the Easter baskets and she remembers finding hers, but her best friend Helen was struggling to find hers. All the while, Betty had found it and it was sitting behind her legs at the tree stump, and she was playing hot and cold with Helen.
“May Day, when we were older, the girls would dress in white; and we danced around the May Pole winding ribbon and Rev. Gebhard would take movies. One time they gave us watermelon and he took a picture of Ruth just jamming the watermelon into her face and all the juices running down her face.
“Sledding … you had to do your work before you could go out sledding and everyone tried to get their jobs done quickly so they got the better sleds. One day I didn’t get my jobs done until last and I ended up with the ‘table’ as my sled: it was a piece of wood and it didn’t steer very well.”
She was going down the slant of a hill, and her brother, Edward, came along and gave her his sled because he was done with it. Of course, Ruth came along and bugged her for the good sled, but Betty wouldn’t give it up and made her use the table. Ruth ran into a tree and ended up bleeding.
“I felt so bad I couldn’t enjoy using Eddie’s sled,” Betty said.
“Ironing chores at Santee Hall at 9 years old: I was the youngest one. We had a pot belly stove to heat the irons all around and girls had two irons each, and I only had one …they could switch irons and it would take me forever with only one iron.
“When Ruth was older, she was in charge of the ironing room and she would make me redo all my work and I had to listen to her because she was in charge.
“That was the same room where we cleaned the fish. When the fish truck was coming, all the girls would disappear, and the matron would come and find us and we had to scrape the scales and gut the fish for storage.
“When it was time for canning, there would be a pan of string beans at the lower steps where the sub-kitchen was, and we would sit there and break up the beans until we were done with our pan. Tomatoes, we had to dump them into boiling water and take off the skins.
“Fresh bread was in a cage hanging from the ceiling, and Ms. Robbins would call us when the bread would come in and she would have butter and jelly. She always gave me the warm crusts because she knew how I loved them.
“We had a big storage room where there was clothing and shoes, and you would go in and pick out clothes a couple times a year. Three work dresses, three school dresses, and a church dress — all the clothes were similar, and you had church shoes. When you got home from church, which was only an hour and a half, you took off your shoes and lined them up and a girl would shine them.
“When we were in high school, I would go over to make sure my sister was ready, and she would say, ‘Make my bed.’ I had made her bed all the time and if I didn’t, she would threaten me by saying, ‘Oh well I guess I will get demerits’; and of course, I would feel guilty and make her bed. We would miss the bus and the kids would wave to us; we would have to walk all the way to the high school.”
“Each week you would get 15 cents and Ruth would only get two cents,” Edward said. “Betty always took at least a nickel from her money and would buy candy to share with Ruth even though she didn’t earn anything with all her demerits.”
“Once at the movies, I was naughty and I was old enough to know better, but when it was still dark I felt something hit my shoe and I held onto it,” Betty said. “During the intermission, the matron said, ‘Did anyone find any money on the floor, this boy lost his money,’ and we all said no. Here I had it and kept it.
“I took it back to the campus and it was burning a hole in my hand. When we got back there was a little girl crying and she had lost her two pennies, so I gave her my found nickel and explained to her that this was worth five pennies.
“There was another time a girl’s mother brought her chocolate and she put it into her box. We were called to dinner, we ate and I hurried and asked to be excused. I ran in and stole a piece of chocolate and ran around the side of the house as I was eating it. I had to gobble it up because someone was coming and I would get caught. After the nickel incident, I realized when you do something bad, you don’t get to enjoy it. I didn’t know I was bad; I didn’t get into much trouble.
“When I was in high school, we had to have a project and I spent all kinds of time embroidering a roman chariot. The day came to take them in and Ruth had a lid from a box with a mirror, a peanut and a little baby. She grabbed all kinds of grass and threw it in the box; it was a last-minute project. Yet the teacher displayed and loved Ruth’s project and none of my work was displayed. I [also] had made a plaster of Paris of the Lord’s Supper and I thought at least that was out in the art class. I went over and it wasn’t there. I asked Mr. Gibson where it was — he said it had fallen and broken.
“In school, we had to take art or music and I wasn’t good at either, but I wanted to learn the flute. The only thing left was the tenor sax. I learned to play ‘America’ on it very slowly. In public events, I pretended to play it because I only knew one song. Ruth played the violin, but she never touched the strings; she just pretended also. Homer was the band leader and he gave me good marks for participation. He would throw batons when you weren’t paying attention.
“Sis and I were determined to graduate and we were in the upper half of the graduation class,” Betty said.
“After graduation, there were seven or eight of us graduating at the same time. Dad was in the Army and Eddie was in the CCC camp, so we were left with no home to go to. Ruth was the first of us two to go and she went to Reading to work with a family with two 15-year-old boys. A letter came for a family from Ephrata and they had young children; I wasn’t a very good disciplinarian and I didn’t take that job.”
“A letter didn’t come for me for a long time. I could have stayed and worked at Bethany as a matron, but I wasn’t good with the kids. I prayed for a good Christian family to live and work with, and the very next day, a letter came from the Miley family and I was with them for 41 years.”
Today, Bethany Children’s Home provides a safe place of nurture, protection, and supportive care to aid our residents in their self-understanding, growth, and healing toward a brighter, healthier future. Though no longer an orphanage, its archives are filled with photos and documents celebrating its heritage. Learn more about the Bethany Children’s Home Archives.
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