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Fran Caldwell Asks: ‘Why Not Me?’

By Staff | Nov 4, 2020

An Interview by,

Mary Ann Yevuta

Frances Fiess Caldwell and her family were always ahead of the curve. Her parents were in their 40s and already parents to 14 and 17 year-old girls when Fran was born. At the old Wetzel County hospital, her father was in the delivery room for the birth, which was very unusual for the time. Although her parents expected a boy who would carry on the family name, they were graced with another baby girl. Despite that initial surprise and an apology from his wife, Fran’s father said, “That’s alright, girls are nicer anyway.”

Education was a high priority for the Fiess family. Back when women were mostly expected to be housewives and mothers, Fran’s mother had gone to college, as had both of her sisters. Her parents attended what was then called West Liberty Normal School and became teachers. Fran’s father, also a strong believer in equal education, told her that she couldn’t get married until she finished college.

What was your childhood like? Fabulous, wonderful. I traveled the neighborhood as soon as I could walk, visiting anyone who was outside on their porch. I knew everyone. I wore out my tricycle wheels when I was a year old. I learned to swim in the river. I had never been in a swimming pool, so when the pool at Bruce Park opened, I started to go in the baby pool. When my father told me to swim in the big pool, I protested that it was over my head, but swim I did. My parents pushed me to do new things.

And they exposed me to as much as they could. In 1939 my dad, who was a big Disney fan, took me to see Snow White. Both of my parents read to me a lot – fairy tales and mythology.

Where did you go to school? Old Central Grade School. We went to school every day. If you lived in town, you walked to school, and there were no snow days. Even if the buses couldn’t run, the walkers still had school. The only time school was closed was for floods, so we prayed for high water. We also walked home for lunch.

The school bathrooms were in the basement, but I was never down there, since I went home for lunch. I don’t know what else was down there – the boilers probably. I went to high school at Magnolia, and college at Bethany.

Did you have a favorite teacher? One who was a mentor? I liked all my teachers, but George Mullet stands out. He was a teacher first, and then became principal. He was fair, but firm; he knew all the kids, and if there was a problem, he would take them into his office, lean back in his chair, and talk with them. He supported the teachers.

What inspired you to go into business? My husband, Hesh.

He had talked to Adeline and Paul Pierson, owners of the Dairy Queen, about letting him have first refusal if they ever decided to sell. I might not have married him if I’d known that! I had worked there when I was in high school, so I knew how much work it would be. They called in October of 1970. I was on the extension, and when they offered to let us buy it, I said “no”, but Hesh, on the other line simultaneously said “yes”. We were living in Pittsburgh at the time, we had no money, Hesh was working at the Y, which paid even less than teachers; so I prayed. I know you aren’t supposed to give God a timeline when you pray, but I did. I said we needed to sell the Pittsburgh house, buy a house in New Martinsville, and find the money for the DQ in two weeks. Well, the first people to look at the Pittsburgh house, a couple named Kennedy, asked if what we were asking was the bottom price. When we answered yes, he pulled out his checkbook and wrote a check for the full amount. A friend let us know that this house was available, and Adeline and Paul let us know that they would finance our purchase of the DQ. All of this happened within 2 weeks. We took over in May, 1971. Hurricane Agnes came through in 1972, and we had to move everything out because of the flooding. I’ve been through lots and lots of floods, but that’s the only one that got water inside the DQ.

You employed a lot of young people over the years. What lessons did you try to instill in them? I treated our employees like I would my own children. I corrected their grammar, taught them how to make change (cash registers back then didn’t do it for them like modern ones do), and taught them the importance of taking pride in their work. If they didn’t keep up their grades, their hours were cut. We employed 2 sisters from Paden City, and if they worked late, sometimes they would stay at our house for the night. Another liked to bake cookies, but couldn’t do it at her house, so came to our house to bake. Sometimes the kids would throw rocks at our window to wake us up because they wanted to make pizza. Another time, they brought us a bouquet of dead flowers that they had got from the cemetery. We still keep in touch with many of them. In 25 years, we maybe only had to get rid of 4 or 5. One person worked for us for 18 years, and another for 15-16 years. Some not only worked while they were in high school, but also while they were in college. Word of mouth was our standard recruiting method, and it worked well. When we took over the DQ the second time, we had parents come in for the interviews. We told them to go home and talk it over, and invariably, we heard from them that night that they wanted to take the job.

What advice would you give to a person interested in starting a business?

Be prepared to work long hours. Returns aren’t what people think they are, although we did make a good living. Don’t expect employees to do anything that you wouldn’t do – be a coworker. When we had to take over the business the second time, the Dairy Queen corporation told us that it would take five years to get back to what it was before we let it go. They were wrong. We were once featured in the Dairy Queen magazine.

What is the most important thing you ever learned? Put God first, be fiscally responsible, share what you have. The Ministerial Association used to send transients/needy people either to Quinet’s or to the Dairy Queen for a meal, and they would pay us, however I never charged anything. Sometimes people would want to work to pay for their meal, but we didn’t let them because of liability. There was one lady who used to come in whose family was notorious for filing lawsuits. When we saw her coming, I would meet her in the parking lot, sit with her while she ate, and then walk out with her.

You are a good cook. If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would you like to cook for? What would you serve? I have no idea who I would invite. I would serve hot dogs with sauce.

You are credited with keeping Eliza Street, which is brick, from being paved over. Tell us about that. I was making a banana run to Witschey’s for the restaurant, and I saw workers with equipment coming down the street. I said, “Wait a minute, what are you doing?” They said that they were getting ready to pave the street, so I called Mayor Lewis Newman (who, by the way, was a driver for Eisenhower). I told him, “Lewie, this is Frannie. New Martinsville has torn everything down. This is the last brick street – we’re keeping it.” He came up and paced back and forth and finally told them to leave it alone. Street workers to this day still tease me by telling me that they’re coming to pave Eliza Street. I had stood in front of the bulldozer to keep it from destroying our heritage. Our sidewalks are still slate too.

What is your favorite story about your mother? Your father? My mom was hired out at age 12 to a farm family in the early 1900s – 1906 or 1907. She hauled water, boiled it, washed clothes on a washboard, ironed them, cooked, gardened, canned, and baked bread (she was noted for her wonderful bread-baking skill). She did everything, and she was paid four dollars a week. My dad had rheumatic fever as a child, so he had a heart murmur that threatened to keep him out of the service in WWI.

He told the army doctor to pass him for military service or he would find someone who would.

He was very civic-minded. He was invited to join the Klan, which was quite active here when I was a child, and he refused.

You create beautiful things with your crafting skills. How did you learn to craft? How old were you when you started crafting? I was in my 60s when I started painting porcelain. I started doing beading when I was in my 60s as well. I started knitting when I was a child, because I would go to missionary society meetings and the ladies there always knitted. That’s why I hold my needles like I do, under my arm, because I was too little to hold them in my hands without that extra support.

New Martinsville has changed a lot during your lifetime. What stands out the most? It saddens me to see that people don’t take pride in the community. The streets used to be swept by hand, merchants swept their sidewalks every day, and people planted more flowers. It isn’t a sin to be poor, but you don’t have to be dirty. I don’t see kids outside playing by themselves without some kind of parental/adult supervision, so kids don’t learn to settle their own disputes.

What advice would you give to young Fran? You don’t have to have everything you want right now. Save up until you can afford it and you’ll appreciate it more. Read. Even if you can’t visit places you’d like to go, you can read about them. Every day, do something for somebody else. Don’t complain. Don’t give up – keep fighting.

How did you and Hesh meet? Tell me about your courtship. I was all set to go to WVU and major in Home Economics, but in August of that year, I changed my mind and decided I wanted to go to Bethany. I somehow managed to clear the hurdles and got accepted. Hesh was a senior. I was standing at the top of Oglebay Gate, which is a well-known landmark at Bethany, when I saw Hesh and some of his friends walking up the hill. I said, “There’s the fellow I’m going to marry.” I ran away slow enough for him to catch me. When he graduated, he left for the service and was stationed in Taiwan, and after his discharge, he worked in Newark, New Jersey. He would work until 10:00 PM Saturday, then drive to Pittsburgh to spend Sunday breakfast with his parents. He then drove down to Bethany to spend Sunday with me and finally back to New Jersey on Monday. Some years later, my mother took the same route and commented that “It had to be love to make that drive.” When my senior comprehensive exams were over, he met me, we planned our wedding, and got married.

You have weathered some serious health issues with a positive attitude. How do you manage to keep up your spirits when going through such difficult times? I look on the positive side. I don’t say, “Why me?”, but “Why not me?” My faith, my family, friends, and wonderful support system have gotten me through the hard times. Every day in the hospital I would remember, “This is the day the Lord hath made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it.” Psalm 118:24. Be happy. You can’t allow the fear of death to dominate your thoughts. Cancer is not a club that anyone wants to join, but, “A merry heart maketh good medicine.” Proverbs 17:22.

If you could do anything for the city of New Martinsville, what would that be? Clean it up. We need specialty stores downtown. We need trees back on Main Street. It would be fun to have First Fridays – artistic or other specialty sidewalk events. I’d like to see the Farmer’s Market back downtown.

You and Hesh have been married a long time. What is the secret to a long-lasting relationship? We didn’t have time for fussing. We worked together for 12-14 hours a day and then we were home together. We both knew that there would be ups and downs, but we worked through them. We had made a commitment to each other.

What was the most difficult thing about running the Dairy Queen? The long hours and the bookkeeping. There were no computer programs to help with the paperwork – it was all manual and it took me hours, for instance, just to type out the W-2s. I only recently got rid of my 1955 model Smith-Corona.

You have a strong sense of civic duty, which has led you to be a poll worker for many, many elections. Tell us about your experiences. Do you have any favorite stories? That sense of civic duty I got from my dad. I enjoy doing things for my town. I had to quit attending the council meetings when I got cancer, and now I don’t go because of COVID, but I plan to start going when this crisis is over. I enjoy working with the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. Everyone should donate time to the community.

Do you have a bucket list? We have always looked for bargains that allow us to go to places we haven’t been. We camped across the Northwest, sleeping in the back of our truck, and we did the same thing across the Southwest. We’ve been to New Guinea, where we met cannibals, and to Antarctica. I was shocked to see how big the Taj Mahal is, and also how big the Grand Canyon is. We experienced severe storms, with 50 foot waves, while onboard a ship. We’ve made friends all over the world. We had a friend in the Channel Islands who was a Royal Lady – Lady Elaine, and when she died, we were invited to her funeral. In China little kids would come up to us because they wanted to practice their English. Once we needed to ask directions, and I thought the natives spoke Spanish, so I struggled to ask my question with my poor command of Spanish. When I got it out, the lady kindly told me that I had done well, but their language was Portugese.

There are always bargains – you just have to look.

Becoming a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was something I had long wanted to do. I recently checked it off the list.

I often said, “when I am too old to really travel, I will be content to sit in my rocker, eat peanut butter sandwiches and have my memories.” I’m almost there, but who knows…there is always tomorrow.”