Catherine Killian Long's family endured hardships
By Karen Carr Keefe
An early family tragedy forged her character and a happy marriage, a son and grandchildren have enriched the life of Catherine Killian Long. She lives in a home that her late husband, Harvey, helped build. Photos of their son, Gary, his wife, Judy, their three daughters and their families surround her.
A B-24 pilot in the Air Force, Harvey asked Catherine for a date while he was in the service. Catherine says he joked that it was his wings on the uniform that made her say "Yes." A few months later, they were married.
The two grew up together on Grand Island, both with ties to the Island's original settlers.
"I was born on Grand Island - that's a few years ago," Catherine quipped. "I was born where the Holiday Inn is." (Now it's called Byblos Niagara Resort & Spa).
Besides her parents and five siblings, there was room at Catherine's childhood home for a slew of other relatives. "It was big enough that my uncle and his whole family lived in that same house there," she said.
The site later became the Mesmer Supper Club. The Mesmer family was related to the family of John Nice, who in 1852 became the town's first supervisor. The Killians rented the property from Louise Nice, Catherine recalls. The home was like an estate house, with a kitchen so big that it fit two 9 by 12 rugs with a foot all around it, and plenty of room for both families, she said.
Hard times hit, but people help out
"My father had originally been an engineer on the lakes, but he was gone nine to 10 months a year. Everybody told him that wasn't fair for my mother to be alone - with three boys at that time," Catherine said. He decided the engineering job was too dangerous. "So he quit the lakes and went farming down the road where the Holiday Inn is now. And then he was killed by a horse on the farm," Catherine said. She was only 7 at the time, and has never forgotten the events of July 14, 1931.
"It took the ambulance about three hours to get there, and of course in those days they didn't have antibiotics, so he didn't make it."
Catherine Killian Long at home on Grand Island. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
At the time of his death, Walter J. Killian was a charter member of the Albright Brotherhood, who mourned his passing. "His life was characterized by friendliness and neighborliness," they wrote, also noting his membership on the Board of Stewarts of Trinity Evangelical Church.
It was hard times on the farm for his widow and young family. "My mother was 36 at the time and had five children," Catherine said. "I don't know how my mother did it, raising five children during the Depression. ... You wouldn't dare go to the grocery store and go one penny over," she said of the tight budget they had to maintain. Her mother became custodian at the church and her brothers, Kenneth, Raymond, Donald and Walter, mowed lawns and did different jobs to earn money.
"We stayed there about one more year later, but at that time I had two brothers who had to go to Tonawanda High School, and there was, of course, no bridges," she said. They would take the ferry over and walk from that ferry landing to where Tonawanda High School is - a long ways. Catherine is also a graduate of Tonawanda High School.
"A lot of the people on the Island would bring their sons or daughters to our house and wait for the ferry to take them over, and then they would stay there until the ferry came back."
After her dad died, her brother, Ken, quit school and went to work for a milk company, and with no bridges, he had a grueling schedule. "He would have to go over at the last ferry at 6, and he would sleep in that milk truck 'til he'd start delivering milk at 3 o'clock in the morning."
The community was there to help the Killians get through the tough times.
"At that time, people were great about helping everybody," she said. When her father died and they had to sell the farm equipment, William Kaegebein, for whom the elementary school is named, took over and organized everything for them.
Catherine's widowed mother used some initiative in finding a new home for her family, and had ample community support, as well. "She got an abandoned home on Staley Road, moved it to Baseline, and everybody helped to get that house together - and that's how everybody lived back then."
Early school days
"We all had to walk from where the Holiday Inn is to Harvey Road (a distance of about 2 miles), and we would be so cold sometimes that we would stop at Kaegebein's and get warm. And when I'd get to school - I was only 5 at the time - sometimes the teacher would set me right on the old wood stove to get me warm, and she sometimes held me on her lap. Can you imagine today, being able to do that?"
"So much of our activity was surrounded with the church ... and we spent a lot of time with family," Catherine said. She became a member of Trinity Church in 1933 and was married there in 1944. She and Harold "Bud" Long are the longest members of the congregation at Trinity United Methodist Church, which started out in the 1860s as Trinity Evangelical.
"Years ago, people would think nothing of stopping over spontaneously and staying for dinner," Catherine said. Her parents both came from big families, and the cousins got together often to play in the barn or swim in the river.
There was only one physician on the Island, Dr. Bradbury on West River, at the time Catherine was growing up. Later, there were Dr. Smith, Dr. Schnitter and Dr. Stessing. Two of Catherine's cousins married Dr. Schnitter and Stessing, respectively.
Through the years
Catherine spent many years working as a secretary, and her late husband worked for 37 years for the telephone company, starting as a lineman and working later in the office. Their son, Gary, lives in Valley Center, Kansas, where he is a C.P.A. Catherine travels to see him and she leads an active life. She is no stranger to technology, using a computer with ease and even staying in touch through FaceTime. Island life agrees with Catherine, and she's proud of her seven grandchildren, including two sets of twins.
Catherine Killian Long in an early school photo.