Lila Fields

The beautiful woman, blue eyes a-twinkle with untold deviltry relished her shocking disclosures to unsuspecting listeners: She lived in a fraternity house and wore pants before it was proper for a lady to do so. Scandalous!

Eyebrows jumped sufficiently high at these unexpected confessions prompting a true confession. Lila grew when the twentieth century was still riding the hems of women under the influence of Victorian propriety.

Joni Lincoln knows about that. But she and her shameful hidden snow pants are a story for another time.

Some 100-plus years ago Lila’s father, Elmer Kerns, owned an auto mechanic garage at 17 Canal Street where he repaired cars and, as a sideline, sold Terraplane cars, an affordable car developed by Hudson Motor Company. He settled his family in the big yellow house farther back from the garage. Lila says her dad could diagnose a mechanical problem just from the sound he heard when a car passed by.

Now you hear that? He’ll be in tomorrow for new points.” And sure enough the man was in the next day, and new points fixed him up.

The Kerns’ side yard skirted West Dock Street. Down Dock Street, past the old wire works building, Elmer owned a pasture lot where he grazed three horses. He loved horses, Lila says, and bought any horse he felt would have a more wholesome life under his care.

He assigned Lila the responsibility of tending the horses, Prince, a bay; Banner, a buckskin and Bunny, a sorrel. She was to feed and ride each in turn. When the matter arose arguing the proper dress for a horsewoman was pants, Mr. Kerns said, “Absolutely not! No daughter of mine is going to wear pants.” Lila says her father was a strong-willed man and what he said usually held sway. But her Irish mother could get her dander up occasionally, and this time she held firm. “Well, no daughter of yours is going to wear dresses to exercise horses.” So off they went to buy more reasonable, modest attire for the young horsewoman. What they found were “jodhpurs,” a relatively new fashion in this country, blousy from hips to knees and tight-fitting to the ankles. Amelia Earhart wore them, and English horsewomen had long given up their side saddles in favor of riding straightforward, wearing jodhpurs. After all, jodhpurs were jodhpurs, not pants. And they didn’t really resemble pants, so no further word was spoken on the matter.

Sundays when the garage was closed, Lila and her dad rode together, Elmer apparently getting over his horror of being seen with his daughter wearing those odd jodhpurs. Lila became a skilled rider and sitting tall and well in command, she led the Memorial Day parade each year, riding Prince. She presented a handsome figure wearing a white cowgirl hat, white blouse and tan jodhpurs.

Lila remembers a pleasant childhood in a village that Lila says was “set in its ways and still living in the past.” She was not allowed to be out running around the streets of Port Byron so her days went by close to home and pasture. She spent many hours setting up a school for her dolls, practicing piano lessons, and singing. One gets the impression she has a fine voice, but all she would say, with her characteristic good humor was that she “sang for her own amazement.”

She remembers every one of her elementary grade teachers and—when the infamous fire destroyed the school building—she recalls spending fourth and fifth grades above Lowe’s Jewelry store. Her world grew a little bigger. There in the center of the village she got to see the bustle around Blake’s Drugstore, Carr’s Hardware, McCumbers’s Grocery Store, Earl Elliott’s Garage and Guzzo’s Billiards Parlor. “Tony Guzzo was a nice guy,” she says, “but I was not allowed to go inside the parlor.”

She was, however, allowed to go into Lucy’s, the ice cream shop on the corner of Main and Rochester streets. It was a daily after-school stop where she bought a chocolate ice cream cone. She was chubby, she remembers, and so was a classmate, Robert Rude. Both chubby, both born September 2, 1926, he older by 15 minutes. Oh, it vexed her so that people called them “twins.” Robert was “brainy,” she adds, by way of softening her pouty memory of poor Robert. “He lived on Green Street in the big brown house by the playground. Forthwith she whipped out Robert’s Rochester address and phone number. They stay in touch.

So the years passed leading Lila to Potsdam to the studies of an education major. A housing shortage on campus caused Lila to live in a vacant fraternity house, which had become a housing unit for women students.

When she graduated the principal, Mr. Gates, hired her to be a kindergarten teacher. When he had an innovative idea that kindergartners would benefit from continuing on to their first-grade year with the same teacher they had in kindergarten, Lila took on the challenge. The experiment, while still in practice in some states, didn’t continue long in Port Byron.

Lila never lost her tender spirit for children. She has bags of yarn—all colors—near her chair by the window, ever ready to knit hats and scarves and mittens for the compassionate community program called “Warm the Children.” She doesn’t focus on her good deed, saying only, “It keeps us busy and off the street.”

Buttons the cat paces restlessly and looks annoyed at a visitor who has stayed too long. Lila says, “He wants to go out to his porch.” She goes to a window, raises it, and Buttons jumps though the opening to his “porch,” which juts out into Lila’s enclosed porch—hence a porch within a porch. In keeping with the season, Lila has decorated Button’s porch with a small Christmas tree, decorated with sparkly lights. “He thinks he’s outside,” Lila says, amused. “At age 91 you can laugh or you can cry, and it’s no fun to cry.” She seems to remember something unsaid, and again her blue eyes tattletale some deviltry, and Lila says, “The best stories I haven’t told you.” She wouldn’t ‘fess up right then but maybe someday she will. And we’ll have a scandalous sequel.


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