Celebrating a century
Five generations gather for 100th birthday party

COVINGTON - Nellie Steele Johnson has seen a lot of changes in her lifetime.

She remembers seeing the primary mode of transportation change from a horse and buggy to the Ford Model-T.

She remembers washing clothes by hand.

"In the old days, you had to scrub all your clothes on a bench outside, boil them in a washing pot and put them in the tub and rinse them out and let them dry. Now, people have dryers. They don't have to do that. That's one blessing," she said.

Johnson will turn 100 on Thursday.

On Sunday, more than 100 friends and family members gathered at Henderson's Restaurant to celebrate.

Two weeks ago, on Feb. 10, Johnson's cousin, Eva Strickland, also turned 100.

Strickland lived in Newton County for 90 years before moving to Tucker 10 years ago to be cared for by her daughter, Celia Jones.

Johnson and Strickland are double-first cousins: Johnson's father, Johnny James Steele, was the brother of Strickland's mother, Eula Steele.

Johnson's mother, Ada Kitchens, was the sister of Strickland's father, Bob Kitchens.

The women grew up picking cotton in the fields of rural Newton County, and both worked at the Bibb mill in Porterdale.

"We didn't get to go to school until the cotton was picked," said Johnson, who recalled picking cotton as young as 4 or 5 years old.

"She was considered one of the best cotton pickers," said Johnson's daughter, Frances Henderson. "She would always have more than everyone else. If she had a job to do, she wanted to do it."

Both Johnson and Strickland are now past their cotton-picking days, but considering their age, they're doing well, family members said.

Johnson's memory was clear when she was asked to recall the details of her life.

She was born in Jasper County on Feb. 28, 1908 - that's four years before the Titanic sank.

She moved to Newton County while still a small child and grew up in a family of 12 siblings, two of whom are still living: Louise Johnson and Hugh Steele.

She married Curtis Johnson in 1923 and they had three children.

She worked at the mill in Porterdale for a time, but mostly stayed home and cared for her family.

She now has 12 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and 12 great-great-grandchildren, with two more on the way.

Johnson's health is good, though she rarely leaves home except to go to the doctor's office these days, her daughter said.

"Years and years ago, before people ever heard of high cholesterol, she was going to a doctor in Atlanta. She was 50 years old and he put her on a strict diet because her cholesterol was so high," Henderson recalled. "She stuck to it up until a few years ago. I think that's probably had a lot to do with it."

Johnson eliminated pork, beef, cheese, eggs and butter and got her protein mainly from fish and chicken. Any frying she did with corn oil.

She also did a lot of walking in her younger years, Henderson said.

Asked how it feels to be 100, Johnson replied, "Really, I don't feel any difference, except I just can't get around."

Like Johnson, Strickland is doing very well for her age, said her daughter, Celia Jones.

Though she uses a walker, has two hearing aids and a pacemaker, "If the car cranks up, she's ready to go," Jones said.

Strickland goes to the beauty shop every two weeks and still loves to get manicures.

"She loves mixing and mingling with people," her daughter said.

Strickland also sews dresses for dolls, which are delivered to Noah's Ark, an animal sanctuary in Locust Grove, and given to abused or under-privileged children living at a care home there.

Her motto, Jones said, is, "Hard work never hurt nobody."

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.