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Mary Weiss recalls a century of life in Helper

Mary Weiss relaxes in the home of Paula and Mel Baughman, her daughter and son-in-law.
a younger Mary sits at the dinner table in fine clothes. She joked that she had dressed up because workers were installing a water line outside and she thought they might notice her.

Sun Advocate editor emeritus

There are a lot of firsts and lasts to be seen in a full century of life. Mary Weiss can tell you that.

On Monday, two days before her 100th birthday, she shared some stories about the comings and goings she has seen since July 9, 1914.

There was the time she and her siblings first saw an airplane in the sky over Helper. She doesn't remember exactly how old she was, but she laughed when she talked about it: "My mother told us to go hide in the basement because we didn't know what it was."

She has also seen the last of the old steam locomotives that used to chug through town belching smoke. These were "helper engines" harnessed to trains for extra power to get over Soldier Summit, giving the city its name. "I miss them," she said. "I had an uncle who was an engineer and he used to blow the horn for us. On New Year's Eve he would blow it for a full hour. He made sure we knew it was New Year."

Mary was born in a house near the railroad tracks, one of the four children of Pete and Pauline Prazza. Her father worked for the railroad and her mother took in laundry for a little extra income. Mary has outlived all of her siblings.

She has not outlived the memories she carries of the old days, however.

One of her earliest recollections is of the flood of 1917 when the Mammoth Dam in Gooseberry Canyon collapsed. "They heard the dam was going to break so they moved us up to the graveyard in tents," she recalled. "All the houses near the river were washed away."

While she was attending the old Helper Central School - getting there by walking the tracks because there were no buses in those days - she had dreams of one day becoming a teacher. But that was not to be. She had to quit school in seventh grade because one of her sisters was ailing and she had to stay home to help her mother.

Mary recalled doing a lot of washing and ironing, but she also picked up some skills like stitching quilts and crocheting, which she continues to this day. There are crocheted table and chair covers in the home of Paula and Mel Baughman, her daughter and son-in-law, where she lives.

She admits to being a homebody, and said her longevity probably stems from that. "I didn't smoke, I didn't drink. I had fun around the house. I grew up working hard," she stated.

She grew up during the days when people provided their own entertainment. She recalled that every Saturday night, she and her friends go to each other's homes and dance to guitar and accordion music. They'd also dance in the streets. They'd ice skate on a pond where the LDS Church is today.

She also remembers the days of Prohibition, which Helperites largely ignored. "Some people had stills, but nobody ever told on them," she said. In fact, her father used to make his own wine. "He got us rubber boots so we could smash the grapes. We used to have fun doing that," she grinned.

There weren't many cars on the roads in those days. It was an adventure - "a real treat" - to ride in the family's Model T to Price, Mary said.

Her life has not been without tragedy. Her first husband, Joe Via, was killed in the coal mine at Kenilworth in 1943. He was only 28 years old, according to records. She raised her sons Charlie and Pete by herself after that. They are both now deceased. She later married Martin Weiss and gave birth her daughter Paula.

Today she counts six grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren among her descendants. "There are five generations," she noted.

Her advice to the younger generations: "Stay home. Study. Don't go running around."

The Baughmans are hosting an open house to celebrate Mary's birthday on July 12 from 3 to 7 p.m. at their home, 115 Palmer St. in Helper.

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