The Model A puttered to a halt one afternoon in 1919, many miles short of the Cook family’s new hometown of Story, OK.
Little red-haired Luegene sat up and spotted the problem from her vantage-point tucked between her sister and a brother in the back seat.
A huge mud hole yawned out ominously in the road ahead.
“The roads were unpaved and were just terrible. You really couldn’t believe it,” Luegene, whose married surname is Merritt, recalled shortly before her upcoming 100th birthday on June 1.
The children and their mother jumped out and held down strands of the leaning fence running alongside the road so their uncle could drive over the barbed wire and continue onward toward the Story-Maysville area.
While Oklahoma roads were narrow and horrible, the Cook family found Oklahomans’ hearts were wide and gentle.
Merritt’s father, Leonard Cook, headed out weeks earlier from their home in Fort Smith, Ark., with his team pulling a covered wagon packed with the family belongings.
About three weeks into the journey, he was allowed to park the wagon overnight at a farm on the fringes of Stratford. The farmer’s wife even fixed him a hearty breakfast, and Cook reciprocated, giving them blackberries his wife had canned.
“People wouldn’t think of doing anything like that these days. They were strangers to those people,” Merritt said.
The family felt honored to move to a land that became a new state in 1907, just a little more than a decade earlier. In fact, Merritt’s cousins were the first twins born after statehood and they were proudly named Okla and Homa.
But the Cook family wasted no time thinking about their decision.
It took good horses, sturdy backs and many blistered hands to grow the crops that supported the farm.
Children weren’t exempt from hard work, either, as Merritt remembers so well.
Before they stepped foot in their little two-room schoolhouse each morning, the Cook children first had to milk the cows.
“Sometimes the cows would get to kicking around. Sometimes they’d get their foot in the bucket and there’d go the milk,” Merritt said.
Other times, Merritt would get smacked in the face by a tail chock full of cockleburs.
But that wasn’t the worst of it for a little girl who loved girly things like petticoats, satiny bloomers and elegant waves styled into her hair.
“I bet I smell like a cow,” Merritt recalls grumbling to her siblings on the way to school.
But there was nothing quite like the back-breaking work of hoeing young cotton plants or harvesting acres and acres of mature cotton in the fall.
“Boy, I hated to pick the cotton,” she said.
The Cook girls, Luegene and Juanita, and boys, Harold and J.W., also sometimes helped hoe a neighbor’s cotton for the princely sum of $1 a day.
That went to essentials, but also a rare indulgence. For just 10 cents, a lady in the community, Aleta Williamson, would use bobby pins to anchor finger waves in young Luegene’s red locks.
Merritt’s rapid-fire narrative slowed as she explained how her mama, Estelle Cook, liked to flip through the Sears and Roebuck catalog to find dresses.
She looked at the pictures and, without using a pattern, cut up material and sewed the pieces into dresses nicer than those in the catalog.
“I can still see one of them,” she said. “The skirt was made of brown velvet and the top was tannish, with loops for the belt to go through.”
“It was a miracle. I don’t know how in the world she did it,” she said.
Feeding ‘broomcorn Johnnies’
Merritt married the farm boy next door a year after graduation in 1933.
William “Sam” Merritt finished high school at 15 and headed off to enter the pre-med program at the University of Oklahoma.
“Daddy made sure we got our education,” said Kay Merritt, one of three daughters who all finished college and became educators. “Mother made sure we went to church and Sunday school.”
After just two years, his brother’s illness and his father’s request for help managing the family farm drove young Sam Merritt to pack up his college books.
He returned home and soon realized the love of his life was living in the modest, elegantly furnished farm house in the very next section.
The married couple soon had their hands full with three daughters and fields full of cotton and broomcorn.
Both crops took hand-labor back then and lots of it. The Merritt family hired about 60 workers, called “broomcorn Johnnies,” to harvest the corn.
During mealtimes, they’d gather around a massive table in the living room that Merritt and neighbor ladies loaded down with roasted corn, beans, ham and other fare, topped off by fresh blackberry cobbler.
“We fed those broomcorn Johnnies good,” Luegene Merritt said.
From fishing lures to angel food to ‘The Price is Right’
Merritt insists that while everyone else in the family packs a wallop of talent, she really didn’t shine at much of anything. Her daughters beg to differ.
When Merritt wasn’t busy at the Maysville First Baptist Church or one of various ladies’ social clubs, she glued together lures in the “Storm Plastics” fishing lure plant, or sold Tupperware, or sewed dresses for the girls — the accomplishments, and the state fair ribbons, go on and on.
Just in the last few years, her pickles and angel food cake have won top ribbons, too.
Merritt was amazed when a blue floral dress, the first garment she entered in competition, actually won a blue ribbon at the Oklahoma State Fair.
“She made the most gorgeous dresses.
“She’d stay up all night working on a dress so that I would have something new to wear the next day,” said daughter, Phyllis White.
“She would make me a dress in the morning,” said daughter, Donna Wallace, “and I’d wear it out on a date that Saturday night.”
Kay Merritt recalled that in 1959, prodded by the independent streak nurtured by the girls’ mother, she traveled to New York and visited the set of “The Price is Right.”
Somebody tipped her off that smiling, excited visitors might get selected to return to the show as a contestant.
She “smiled and smiled and smiled.” Sure enough, her smile — or her green-checked dress made by her mother — or both — won her a spot on the show.
She still holds that dress and others sewn by her mother as closely as the memories they represent. She plans to display many — still in perfect condition — during Luegene Merritt’s 100th birthday celebration.
If partygoers beg Merritt for the key to a long, happy life, she’ll likely keep it short and sassy.
“I just do the best I can. I’m just trying to do what’s right,” she said. “And looking forward to the future.”