|FACES of a CENTURY
Used here with permission of The Sumter Daily Item
The Brown sisters in their nurse’s uniforms in the 1940s: Mildred, Betty, Alice and Jane.
Sumter celebrated its 200th birthday on Jan. 8; this year is also the last of the city’s second century. So it seems an appropriate time to take a look back at how Sumter and its residents have changed. Throughout the year, Panorama will interview residents who have lived here through much of the 20th century, publishing their memories of Sumter as it was and as it has progressed, from the viewpoint of their careers and personal experiences.
By Ivy Moore
|Name: Betty Brown Cain
Age: 77 — born April 30, 1923
Years in Sumter: “I was born
here, raised at 115 North Salem Avenue, right down from the park.”
Family: Widow of John Nelson
“Bunk” Cain. Two children, Emily C. Shuman in Irmo and John Dwight Cain
Occupation: Retired public
In what way has Sumter changed
the most in your years here?“I think Shaw Field and all the industries made the biggest difference. It used to be, if you’d go downtown and see someone you didn’t know, you’d find out who it was. Now I can go to the mall and shop for hours and not see anyone I know. For so long, Sumter was just a small place.”
What do you think was the most significant event of the 20th century for Sumter?“Growth — look at the size of Sumter. Haynsworth and Saratoga were about the most of Sumter. Now it’s so spread out. Health services have grown, too. Now there’s the hospital, school nurses, Medicaid, Medicare. Also, so many girls from Sumter married Shaw Field people. That spread them all around, really broke up families. There used to be a ‘cadet club’ at the Elks Club, and the cadet nurses would go there to dances. That’s how they met.”
What was the most significant invention and why?“Television. (Former ITEM photographer the late) Heyward Crowson probably had the first one in Sumter. Paved roads and telephones, too. If you lived in the country, you just didn’t have phones. When I was a public health nurse, very few of our patients had telephones. They’ve made access to health care a lot easier.”
Cain has spent all of her 77 years in Sumter. Entering her home and seeing the dozens of mounted fish, most with lures in their mouths, decorating the walls of her den, you’d think she must have spent most of that time fishing.
Cain (third from left) is shown with her sisters, from left, Jane (Jeffress), Mildred (Shaw) and Alice (Beaty).
Though fishing in the family’s mill pond is her favorite pastime — both before and after retirement — Cain worked from the time she finished high school until her husband retired. Born and reared in the center of the town, Betty Brown married a Sumter native and served the county as a public health nurse for almost 35 years, retiring in 1979. She has witnessed many changes in the city during the 20th century.
Cain recalls attending school on Washington Street, “where the Wachovia Bank is now. I went to the Washington school in the first through third grades, the Hampton school in the fourth and fifth grades and then Central in the sixth. After that, the girls went to the Girls High School, which later became McLaurin Junior High and is now the Grace Baptist Church. The boys went to the Boys High School, which was where Patriot Hall is now.”
In 1940, Cain was a member of the first class to graduate both boys and girls. “It had been called Sumter High School, but then it was called Edmunds,” she explained. “We had a ball. We loved being in class with the boys, so you know we didn’t learn very much!”
Cain doesn’t actually remember “meeting” her husband, Bunk Cain, who died several years ago. “It seems like we always knew each other,” she explained. “We all just grew up together.
“In those days, you didn’t pair up,” she continued. “We did everything in groups. Bunk had a car, and he’d take us all to baseball games.
“Our group was called the ‘Twifty Twelve.”’ Cain laughed. “There were 12 in our group.”
“Back when I went into nursing, people just didn’t go to college. Girls finished high school, then you got married or became a secretary or a nurse. There wasn’t much open to us. Tuomey had a nursing school and a dormitory for students, the Neill O’Donnell Memorial Residence for Nurses, on Washington Street. It’s a parking lot now, I believe,” Cain said.
Nursing school cost $100, so she got a scholarship from the Rotary Club that she had to repay when she started working. “That was a lot of money in those days, and there were seven of us,” Cain explained of her family. She moved into the nurses’ home at Tuomey in 1941. “Before I started nursing school, I had to work for a while,” Cain said.
“There were only 11 grades then, so I was 16 years old when I graduated. You couldn’t go into training until you were 18, because you couldn’t take the state exam (for nursing) until you were 22, so you just didn’t go until you were 18.
“Once you graduated,
you could go back to high school and take typing and shorthand. I had a
job at R.T. Brown Tire Company (Brown was her father), which was the Goodyear
Tire Center and later became Hughes Tire Service.”
Upon entering school, Cain and the other student nurses had a grueling schedule of classes and working in Tuomey Hospital. “They didn’t have nurses’ aides or LPNs (licensed practical nurses) back then,” she remembered. “We did all the work. We had shifts from 7 to 7, a.m to p.m. or p.m. to a.m. We had class for two or three hours in the morning or afternoon, and the rest of the time you worked in the hospital, emptying bedpans, giving baths and whatever the nurses told you to do.
“The doctors taught the classes, and I don’t think they were actually paid for that. This was during the war (World War II), and quite a few doctors joined the service.”
Though Tuomey Hospital was quite small, compared to the current Tuomey Regional Medical Center, Cain recalls that there were three buildings that operated almost as separate, complete hospitals. “One was for paying customers, one was the ‘ward building,’ for charity patients, and one was for black patients.” Sumter was still highly segregated in the 1940s.
“They had three stories — the first was the medical floor, second was surgical and third was obstetrics. It was a good hospital, just not a very big one,” Cain believes.
“Registered nurses were in charge of each floor, and we (unpaid) student nurses worked for them. At one time, three of my sisters were in training at one time.” Four of the “Brown girls” — Alice (Beaty), Jane (Jeffress), Mildred (Shaw) and Betty — attended Tuomey’s nursing school.
“The patients could tell where we were in school by looking at our caps,” Cain explained. “If you didn’t have a cap, you were just starting out. At the end of three months, you got a white cap, and at the beginning of your senior year, you got a black band on your cap. They took the band off at graduation, when we got our three-year diplomas. We didn’t get a degree.”
Cain became a cadet nurse in her senior year of nursing school. “They paid us $30, and I thought I was rich, because I didn’t have anything,” she said.
The nurse corps was founded in 1943 when World War II drained civilian hospitals of 35,000 nurses. The corps was designed to attract qualified high school graduates into the nursing profession to replace those who went to war. After they finished the three-year program, they were then asked to commit five years of service to a hospital or the armed services.
She wanted to join the military, Cain recalls, but couldn’t get in. “They were begging for nurses, so all of us decided to try,” she recounted. “I went to Columbia for the physical to join the Navy, but they turned me down because I didn’t weigh a hundred pounds. Then I went to Fort Jackson, but the Army turned me down because my vision was 20/70 — it had to be 20/50.”
When she was rejected by the Air Force for yet another reason, Cain says she told everyone, “I’m a 4-F old maid!”
Cain’s unsuccessful attempt to enlist in the military benefited the local health department, now the Wateree Department of Health and Environmental Control, where she served for almost 35 years. She remembers working out of the health department when it was located in the basement of the courthouse, then when it moved to what is now the Family Court building on Magnolia Street, and finally in the present building on the corner of Magnolia and Hampton Avenue.
That building was named for the late Dr. Alex Heise, who hired Cain in 1944.
Three other nurses and Cain were responsible for all the public health nursing in Sumter County. “My first salary was $75 a month,” Cain said. “When it got up to $100, I thought I was wealthy. I bought all my clothes at RuVelle.” She laughed.
(then Brown) is shown holding Item photographer Bruz Crowson shortly after
“When I retired in 1979, I was making $16,000 a year.”
After she and Bunk married in 1950, they built the house that Cain still occupies. “We built it for $7,500,” she said. “Our monthly payment was $39 on our GI loan. I think it went up to $65, but that was because of taxes and insurance.”
She remembers her early years at the health department quite well, recalling that “a lot of our patients were very poor. Farms had a lot of tenants, and we had weekly clinics in Wedgefield, Pinewood, Mayesville and other outlying areas.
“We had a lot of VD (venereal, or sexually transmitted, diseases), prenatal clinics, shots for preschool children, and we had to go to schools to vaccinate children, check their eyes and their teeth. They didn’t have school nurses like they do now.
“We worked 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, and 9 to 1 on Saturday.”
When she had her two children, Cain had to resign from her job with the health department. “You had to quit when you were six months along,” she said, “and you couldn’t come back until your baby was three months old. We didn’t know whether we’d have a job any more, because they didn’t hold it for you.
“I was lucky because there was a nurse who’d take my job each time, just so she could work for six months. She wanted money to work on her house.”
Cain says that, though she knows medicine has made a lot of advances, “some things have not always been for the better. It seems a lot more impersonal now.” She’s concerned about the divorce rate — “Marriage meant something in those days” — and the schools — “We got spanked. Schools can’t say ‘No’ to the students now.” Working as a nurse when she did was a wonderful experience overall, Cain believes. “All in all, we did a good job with as few as we had. We thought we were very lucky.”