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.”