On a chilly, bright March morning, Betty Jones, 84, raps on the door of an old shingled farmhouse on Barnes Hill Road in Waterbury Center, a cheerily-wrapped bundle under her arm. Her errand is to drop in on her old friend Florilla Ames and convey birthday wishes from Waterbury Center Community Church, of which both women are longtime members. The next day, March 17, Florilla would celebrate her 110th birthday.
Florilla, who has received the first of two COVID-19 vaccination shots, sits in her recliner facing a large picture window that looks out to the Green Mountains and the ski slopes of Mount Mansfield. Her visitors take seats spaced out across the room. Although masks pose an additional challenge to her failing vision and hearing, Florilla leans forward attentively when someone speaks. For the next 45 minutes, she ambles through the decades of memory lane with her visitors, telling one story or another related to major events of the last century.
Born to Arthur and Ida Perkins in 1911, Florilla grew up on the family farm on Barnes Hill. As a girl, she learned to sew, joined other children on sleigh rides to school in winter, and paid a dime to ride the electric trolley between Waterbury and Stowe.
When the 1918 flu pandemic came to Waterbury, everyone in the house, except for Florilla’s oldest brother, got sick at the same time. “People died here in Waterbury. It was terrible. A whole family died next door to us,” she said, but “we came through it.”
A neighbor at the foot of the hill came and did the chores for the family while they were all ill. “Luckily, my dad had a milking machine, so one man could do it,” she explained. “Otherwise, I don’t know what would have happened. That man never had (the flu) at all. He used to come in the house and take care of the fires for us.”
Florilla reflected that the current pandemic is “worse than the first one” because people now have enough information to know better. “They were taken by surprise” when the flu broke out, she said, adding, “They had nothing to compare it with. They knew nothing about it. They didn’t have the things to work with they’ve got now. Nothing. Nothing.”
During high school, Florilla would often stay with friends on Randall Street since the Village was such a long trek from Barnes Hill. It was one of these nights in early November 1927 that someone ran door-to-door to warn Randall Street residents that the Winooski waters were rising. She recalled fleeing with others to the high school, with the aid of a gentleman who carried her on his back. There she waited out the receding waters and returned home when the roads were finally passable again.
In 1928, Florilla graduated from Waterbury High School and went on to earn her teaching certificate from Lyndon Institute. Her first two years of teaching were at the one-room schoolhouse on Loomis Hill in Waterbury Center. The school was located at what is now the intersection of Loomis Hill and Shaw Mansion Roads. She then went on to teach for another eight years in Derby Line. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Florilla concluded of that period.
One thing Florilla liked to do as a young woman was listen to music. Perry Como was one of her favorites, preferring him over Frank Sinatra. “I loved Nat “King” Cole. We had some beautiful music back then,” she added. As for Elvis Presley, “I didn’t like him at all. All his wiggling and twisting,” Florilla declared.
The Great Depression didn’t touch Florilla’s life in the same ways as other significant events of the 20th century. “Farmers weren’t hurt too much because they raised everything they needed anyway,” she explained. “It would be different now. There would be a lot of people who go hungry.”
While teaching in Derby Line in 1938, Florilla met Darryl Ames, whom she would marry later that year. They were married for 70 years, until his death at the age of 94 in 2008.
At one point during her reminiscences, Florilla’s landline phone rings loudly, causing all of the room’s captivated occupants to jump from the interruption. After listening to the person on the other end of the line for a moment, Florilla replies, “I’m busy right now. I’ll have to call you back.” When the caller tries again 20 minutes later, they are met with the centenarian’s quick retort: “Yeah, well, I’m still busy. Call back!”
Although her vision and hearing are failing and “very painful arthritis” plagues her legs and feet, Florilla remains sharp as a tack. She spends much of her time enjoying her many geranium plants — “I couldn’t live without them,” she insisted — and listening to audiobooks delivered regularly by the ABLE Library, part of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. Florilla recalled that 3 years ago, she asked them how many audiobooks she had borrowed from them, and they tallied about 1,800. The audiobooks keep coming, and “Anything they send, I like,” she stated.
Florilla has lived through enough history for several lifetimes, including 20 U.S. presidents, the invention of arguably three of the most significant communication media in human history (radio, television and the Internet), economic crises, floods, epidemics, two World Wars, a Cold War and the monumental changes that time has wrought upon her beloved Waterbury community.
“I’m living in a different world,” she said, in reference to her family and friends who have gone before her.
In an attempt to put Ames’ noteworthy birthday in context, Waterbury Roundabout set out to find statistics on Vermont’s population to see how big a peer group there is for centenarians. Government Services Librarian April Shaw at the Vermont Department of Libraries tracked down a 2010 U.S. Census report that offered some perspective.
Of the 625,741 Vermonters counted in 2010, 133 were age 100 or older, which works out to be 0.0213% of the population. A small group, indeed, but still higher than the national proportion. The 2010 census counted 53,364 Americans in the most senior 100+ category, which was 0.0173% of the U.S. population, according to the report.
The report on the 2010 census wasn’t published until 2012, so we may have to wait a couple of years for the updated numbers from the 2020 census. In the meantime, Florilla can definitely enjoy the honor of being Waterbury’s oldest resident.
For her birthday on St. Patrick’s Day, Florilla requested corned beef and cabbage. Her housekeeper also had a cake stashed away in the refrigerator. The gift Jones delivered was a Jeanne Alix watercolor portrait of Waterbury Center Community Church where Ames has been a member for 98 years.
Until last year, Florilla would host an open house for her birthday, but “we got word of this disease coming in, and so the party didn’t materialize,” she explained. A sign on the door went up declaring no visitors.
Party or not, what is Florilla’s secret to living so long? “I take my time,” she quipped.
Waterbury Center resident Cheryl Casey is an associate professor of Communication at Champlain College.