Life from a bygone era in Richmond Hill came alive Thursday night when a local man read excerpts from his late mother’s autobiography about life here during the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Bob Fennell, the only child of Margaret Fennell, read two passages from his mother’s book “Little Did I Know” to a large crowd at the Richmond Hill History Museum as part of the Richmond Hill Historical Society’s lecture series.
“”I was poor. I was unpopular. I felt left out. Little did I know things could change,”” are the first lines of the book, and were the first lines her son read.
“My mother was not poor, she was por, p-o-r” Bob clarified, spitting out “por” with a heavy southern accent.
He read an excerpt from the book that described how his mother’s life changed her senior year of high school in 1944 when she was noticed by Ford at a chapel perfomance. In her book, Margaret wrote about how all the students at the high school were required to attend the Martha-Mary Chapel, at what is now St. Anne’s Catholic Church, every day, and how the school was told that Ford would also be in attendance on a certain day.
Margaret said she was originally supposed to perform a musical reading of the 23rd psalm, but when Ford said he was coming, she was replaced with smarter and better dressed students. She describes in her book how this disheartened her and made her feel left out.
However, much to the school’s disappointment Ford did not come to chapel that day.
The next day when Margaret was again scheduled to perform she said she dressed as well she could, and preformed her best, wanting to prove she could do just as well as her replacement.
Then, she looked up to the balcony during her performance and there was Ford.
Later that day, she said, she was told by the principal that the superintendent of Ford’s plantation, J.F. Gregory, wanted to meet with her after school, and at that meeting she got a job working at Ford Plantation’s main office.
This chapter is one of Bob’s favorites because “its God’s steps,” he said, noting they tried to hide her because she was poor and not well dressed, but she ended up performing for Ford anyway.
“It was fate. It gave her an advantage. It changed her life.” Bob said.
Bob also took the time to read an excerpt from the book that told the history of the Ford Plantation, and how Ford came to settle in the little town of Ways Station.
Margaret described the Ford mansion as “a billionaire’s paradise,” and “a Yankee version of what a Southern plantation should be.”
She also described some of the riches of the house; specifically the spectacular living room chandelier that the book said was worth $65,000 in 1936.
Bob finished up his lecture reading the last page of the book, which states ““My life has changed. Little did I know it would. I am no longer poor. I don’t need to be popular. I no longer feel left out. I know things can change.””
It took Margaret 34 years to write the book, and she started it as a kind of therapy to help her get through her divorce, according to Bob.
Christy Sherman, president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society, said the group had been anticipating the release of the book for years, and they had Bob lecture because once the it finally came out they wanted to share the stories.
Sherman said her take on the book is that we drive past all the Ford buildings everyday and we can’t help but imagining ourselves living in that time period.
She said the book is a chance to live vicariously though Margaret’s stories.
Bob said he had been trying to get his mother to publish the book for 20 years, but she always wanted to change something, she would declare it finished and then a couple of days later decide something needed to be fixed.
Then, one day Margaret declared the final version finished and never said anything needed to be changed, “she absolutely had finished it,” he said.
Bob emphasized that not a word was changed in his mother’s book after her sudden passing in October at 87.
The book costs $32.50 and Bob said he does not make any profit off of its sale. There were 158 printed and there are about six left, but Bob said more will be printed if there is a demand for them.