At 95 years old, Ruby Vencill is living history. Her volumes of lore reside not on musty shelves, but alive and vibrant in the stories she tells to her family, and soon to us all.
“My dad wrote a book when he was 80 years old. I think I should write down my life so that my family and people will know what it was like,” she said.
Vencill sat at her dining room, already fully into the morning.
“I get up every morning and cook. Usually, I’m preparing my raisin rolls,” she added.
Ah, yes. The raisin rolls. The circular tin full of goodness is a familiar fancy for many in the area who know Mrs. Vencill.
The fluffy, not-too-sweet homemade delicacies are her signature dish, and the stuff for friendly sparing at her twice-monthly Shoney’s breakfast bingo.
On the morning I came to call, Mrs. Vencill said she couldn’t chat too long because she had some errands to run. The spritely nonagenarian instead offered me a portion of her memoir. It’s a chronicle of a lush life of family and friendship, both bound by the thread of Vencill’s life’s work--- cooking.
“Well, this is my life story, honey. I thought I should probably write it down,” Vencill said as she placed it in my hands.
It may have been my imagination, but I think even the manuscript smelled like those rolls, or perhaps the house is permanently perfumed by their presence. Anyway, it was a sweet sensation.
“Ruby Lewis Vencill, My Life: Things I Remember” is her ode to family.
She recalls a childhood spent with her father and mother, her 10 siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, and so many friends along the way.
Vencill takes the reader on her journey through time with recollections of taking the train from Olive Hill to Morehead on Sundays for church, and eating ice cream at Bishop’s Drug Store afterward. She wrote of Fourth of July and homemade lemonade, ice houses and smoke houses, and the first time she saw television. Of pouring water on the back porch and skating during the winter, and of close relationships with her siblings and so many relatives. There’s even a recipe for Fourteen Pound President’s Fruitcake.”
Vencill is one of seven daughters and three sons born to John Anders and Sarah Adams Lewis. She was born on a farm on KY 32 just outside of Morehead. For a few years they lived in Olive Hill, but her family soon returned to their farm. There, Vencill said, her lifelong passion was kindled.
“They couldn’t keep me out of the kitchen. I must have started trying to cook when I was 6 or 7,” she said.
Her family raised cattle and hogs, kept apple and peach orchards, grew beans and corn and wheat for flour. The storehouse walls were lined with big stone jars full of pickled corn, cucumbers and hot green tomato catsup.
Vencill said her parents taught her to work hard and share more.
“During the summers of the Depression so many people needed help, I remember one month we had 35 people at our house. It sure takes a lot of work to feed and take care of that many people for a month.”
Her mother nurtured Vencill’s love for cooking.
“She was a fabulous cook. She could take the simplest food and make something special of it. She always wanted everyone to eat when they came to our house,” Vencill said.
Vencill spoke and wrote affectionately of her father.
“He was just a wonderful daddy,” she wrote.
She said John Lewis tried to give his family the very best, and taught them the importance of having a generous heart. He also taught them the importance of hard work.
“We worked from the time we were big enough to do anything. We grew up with a saw and hammer in our hands even heating and turning metal,” she said.
“Knowing how to do all this came in handy after I married. When I wanted an old flue or a closet torn out and built back, I just did it. I knew how to do it all,” she said.
She first attended high school in Haldeman, where she met her husband, Kenneth.
“That first day of school Kenneth saw me. He went to the company store and told everyone there, all the neighbors and everybody he saw that he was going to marry that little Lewis girl,” she wrote.
“He succeeded after eight years of off and on dating!” she said. They married on Jan. 29, 1939.
Vencill graduated from Morehead High School and earned a degree in home economics at Breckenridge Training School.
She taught school at Haldeman and Morehead Grade School. It was then that she would establish a school meals program that has since fed thousands of children annually.
In 1960, she was hired as School Food Service Director in the superintendent’s office.
“When I started in the schools, I found some were using canned biscuits instead of making them. That didn’t last long,” she quipped.
Vencill’s school lunch program took her deep in the county, where she brought milk, flour, butter, cheese and peanut butter, meat, frozen and canned goods and other staples to one and two-room school houses.
“Everything we got from the government was the very best,” she said.
When those schools consolidated to form Tilden Hogge Elementary School, Vencill started the lunch program there. By 1965, the county school lunch program had been centralized under her direction.
Vencill soon piloted a breakfast program at Tilden Hogge, which led to what is now a statewide breakfast program. Her legacy remains today in the current Rowan County school lunch program that provides free and reduced meals to families.
Vencill’s husband Kenneth died in November 1985. The next month, she buried her son, Kermit.
“I thought I would die too. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.” she said.
Her daughter-in-law and grandchildren moved back to Morehead from Ohio.
Her grandson, also named Kermit, said having a part of her family close helped her get through the difficult time.
Kermit Vencill works in the Morehead State University library, a steward of volumes, two of which were penned by his own family.
The narrative of John Lewis, Kermit’s grandfather and Mrs. Vencill’s father, is catalogued in the library’s 5th floor the Appalachian collection.
“The first 15 pages is all lineage. He went back to the first relatives who came from Great Britain,” he said.
“After the lineage, that’s when you start getting into the meat and potatoes. And that’s when I started asking my grandmother to tell me stories about the family, which led to her writing it down.”
Kermit Vencill said heritage is most important to his grandmother.
“The idea of knowing where you came from is very important to her,” he said.
“She’s very concerned about how we’ll fare after she’s gone.”
Vencill recalled stories growing up with his grandmother when biscuits with butter, molasses and fresh tomatoes were always on the breakfast table.
“My memories always revolve around food. I mean seriously, Thanksgiving and Christmas were incredible,” he said.
No one has surpassed his grandmother’s cooking. The tastes as smells are indelibly etched in his mind.
“I have tried and tried. No one fries an egg like she does. Not even my mother, who took a lot of cooking tips from her,” he said.
Vencill said he his grandmother’s legacy is varied. He wants people to know she’s a great cook, and also is a lady who accomplished so much while staying close to home.
“She’s a cool little lady and the stuff she’s done was all right here in Morehead, in Kentucky,” he said.
“She had a career that was important and affected the lives of so many people. Men who are now 60 or 70 years old who were her students still call her ‘Mrs. Vencill’, and they have a twinkle in their eye when they talk about her.”
He spoke of the kinship ties described throughout his grandmother’s memoir.
“The whole Lewis family is that way,” Kermit Vencill said.
“When we have our Lewis family reunion every year, all of the descendants of John and Sarah Lewis come to Morehead. They come from Flemingsburg and from as far as California,” he said.
The reunion is always held on the last weekend in July, on or around Ruby Vencill’s birthday. This year, she’ll be 96.
Longevity and self-sufficiency is a family trait, Kermit Vencill said.
“Her sister Marie was self-sufficient until she passed away at age 98. For being 95, my grandmother is very self-sufficient. That is an amazing quality,” he said.
To what does Ruby Vencill attribute her longevity?
“I live pretty simply, and I just never stopped moving,” she said.
Her grandson agrees.
“I guess simple living is the best explanation. No excess. But at the same time she loves bacon and gravy. She told me she hopes there’ll be gravy in heaven,” he laughed.
Noelle Hunter can be reached at email@example.com or by telephone at 784-4116.