Ethel Augenstein still going strong at 95-plus

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By Panzi Blackwell

Ethel Augenstein’s name has been almost synonymous with good food during her 95 1/2 years.

Although she held down other jobs in her earlier years, she found her way to various restaurants, schools and church kitchens in the area, and there she remained, assuring anyone who partook of her cooking good food.

Ethel, however, did get out of the kitchen(s) long enough to live an interesting and active life, a fulfilling life as a wife and mother, and a useful life to her community, organizations, and her church…and still is. 

As Ethel prepares to celebrate her 95 1/2 years (she was visiting out of state on her 95th birthday), she invites all of her family and friends to join her from 2 – 4 p.m. this Sunday in the First Baptist Church fellowship hall.

Meet Ethel (Boggs) Augenstein as she shares her life, both in and out of the kitchen, with vivaciousness, liveliness and much laughter.

A Bit of Family History

Ethel was born to Rilla (Jeffs) and Ed Boggs in Seminary Township on Jan. 12, 1915. She had a younger sister, Wilma, who died at age 3, and six brothers – Ray, Louis, Buck, Carl, Hugh and Gene. All are deceased, except Gene, who lives in Brownstown.

Ethel attended Seminary School through eighth grade. She said that she couldn’t go on to high school, as she would have no transportation; there were no school buses then. Her cousin, Margaret, was living in town with their grandparents, and Ethel’s mother felt that having both girls would be too much trouble.

So Ethel stayed home and helped her mother with the household chores and cooking. Her mother loved to cook, and she passed that love and talent on to her daughter. Ethel especially remembers her mother’s special fudge, made with mashed potatoes.

Tragedy struck the family when her mother was pregnant with her last baby. Ethel’s dad drowned when he went to check his traps on Tevis Lake.

“It was the last of January,” Ethel said, “the time for trapping mink and muskrat. It was a way of making a living, It was in the ’20s. We didn’t have any money.”

A search party could tell by her father’s tracks in the snow that he had started running to the lake. Neighbors surmised that he fell through the ice in an attempt save his beloved dog. The dog got out of the icy water, but the thin ice kept breaking and her dad did not make it out.

Times were hard for the Boggs family during the depression, long hours of work trying to eke out a living from the hard soil, and then Ed drowned.

“But everyone else was having the same hard times. There were good times too, as neighbors would get together in joyous times and in times of crisis,” Ethel said. 

Earning a Living

One of Ethel’s first jobs was working at the Johnson, Stephens and Shinkle Shoe Factory in Vandalia. Her brother, Ray, was working there as a foreman, and when Ethel was hired, she went to live with Ray and his wife in Bluff City.

“Fourteen cents an hour, and bring your dinner,” Ethel said about working at the shoe factory.

She recalled that the female workers “dressed up” to go to work at the factory. “They wore dresses, sometimes high heels, and hose, and sometimes a hat.”                            

Along Came Jake…

Ethel and Jacob “Jake” Martin Augestein, a young man working at the hospital, met on a blind date, arranged by “Speck” and Dorothy (Carroll) Hamilton.

“We went to Salem to the Soldiers and Sailors Reunion,” she said. “We were married on Oct. 3, 1935.”

They moved into Jake’s mother’s front room.

A baby girl, Ginger Ann, was born to them on Dec. 12, 1936. “She was early and weighed just 3 pounds,” Ethel said. “She was born at home, and I put her in a shoebox on the oven door to keep her warm. I fed her with an eyedropper.”

Jake and Ethel had moved to St. Louis to work in a factory when World War II came along. Ethel worked as a riveter in a defense plant in St. Louis.

When Jake was drafted into the Navy, Ethel returned to Vandalia and worked at Murray’s Cleaners.

Ginger went to Lincoln School and helped by starting supper for her mother, who didn’t get home until 5 p.m.

When Jake returned home after the war was over (on a Friday), they moved to Detroit, Mich.

Living in a large house, they took in boarders, and Ethel cooked meals for the boarders.

Back to Vandalia

The Augenstein family came back to Vandalia, and Jake managed the Gulf Station on the corner of Fifth and Orchard streets. “We owned and managed it,” Ethel said. “We had the first car wash. We paid rent to Harry Rogier.”  Among those working for Jake were young Don Etcheson and Brad Pryor.

A Hostess, but Destined for the Kitchen

Ethel first worked as a hostess in various restaurants, including Jays, Max Mabry’s and “Lamar Wiss’s little restaurant on Gallatin Street.”

She also worked at brother Ray’s restaurant in Smithboro, “The Wishing Well,” which was known for miles around as the first one to have a smorgasbord meal.

However, her love for cooking, instilled in her by her mother, led her into a fulfilling career in the culinary arts … and pleasing people.

She worked as a cook at Vandalia High School for 26 1/2 years, a job she loved. She had the opportunity to counsel the young kids who worked in the cafeteria, and many came to see her after they graduated.

She was in charge of the First Baptist Church kitchen for years, planning and preparing many dinners. Her strawberry pie came to be an anticipated favorite at the Lenten Luncheons.

Catering Service…

Jake, Ethel and the late Mary Evans collaborated in a catering business, which was sometimes a 24-hour job. The late Darlene Pruett, Irene Fink and Ethel’s son-in-law, Gene Wells, would often help serve.

They catered for lots of factories, such as Brockway, for all three shifts, for Christmas and Thanksgiving meals, which meant that she would be up 24 hours, so each shift would have a freshly cooked meal.

She took pride in what she served and wanted the hot foods hot and the cold food cold. She laughed about her and Mary making noodles for three shifts at Brockway, making new batches and hanging them to dry wherever they could find room.

“We used 12 dozen eggs in those noodles,” she said with a laugh.

She cooked dinners for weddings receptions, funerals, company picnics … for any occasion. “I have so many memories, and I wouldn’t give any of them up,” she said. “And I’d probably do the same thing over again.”

Conscientious and Responsible

Her husband, Jake, now deceased, served the First Baptist Church as custodian and treasurer for many years.

She remembers one winter when it was raining heavily and the roof started leaking. They wanted to make sure the furnace kept running, so they stayed all night in the church parlor to watch it.

“Jake had got up every hour and ran down to the church to check the furnace. So we just went down and stayed that night,” she said. 

In the Community

Ethel has served as a Girl Scout leader and worked in the church nursery for years. She is currently a member of Soroptimist International, Red Hats and Lucky Thirteen, and plays bunco with friends every month. Ethel and Jake became Christians when Ginger was 16 and from then on, God and the church were the center of the Augenstein family’s lives.

At Home

Ethel is still active in her clubs and attends church regularly, but her focus is also on her family.

Ethel enjoys her family, her daughter, Ginger Wells, who has retired from teaching school, and her husband, Gene Wells; their son, Rick Wells and wife Sherri; grandson, Brandon Wells; great-granddaughter, Stephanie DuPlayee and husband, Chris, and their children, Christian, Faith, and Justin; Ginger and Gene’s daughter ,Traci Jo (Wells) Small and her husband, Dan Small, and their children, Andrew, Brooklynn and Carson; and great-granddaughter Ashley (Wells) McCormick and her husband, Mike, and their son, Bennett.

Ethel makes her home in Capitol Pointe Apartments.

Ethel wants all of you to join her in a piece of her birthday cake this Sunday from 2-4 p.m. in the church fellowship hall.

She has no idea how many birthday cakes she has made for other people, but this is one cake she won’t have to bake.