Grayson Times

Banjo-pickin' grandma

By Tonie Noe, Staff Writer

September 19, 2007 — Esta McCleese is a feisty gal who loves to ride horses and hang out with her son Marcus. She might be 97 years old, 
but Esta has no plans of slowing down or retiring to the rocking chair, just yet. 

Born Dec. 21, 1910, the Olive Hill resident recalls her life growing up in Lewis County and how she came to Carter County. 
She learned to play the banjo at the age of 9, and still today Esta enjoys picking a tune and humming a song. 

“My daddy bought me my first banjo and I have played ever since. That was almost 100 years ago but I still remember the first song I learned, 
‘Rolling in my sweet baby’s arms.’ I love to play for sick people when they need someone to cheer them up,” Esta said. 

With nine children of her own, and four stepchildren, Esta and her late husband Herman always tried to help those in need. 
Even before she was married, Esta always thought of others instead of herself. 

“Back in the 1920s when things were rough, I heard about this little family that didn’t have anything to eat. I told mommy to cook up some 
food because they didn’t have a bite. Mommy cooked biscuits and gravy and made up a fruit basket. I ran all the way to their house to give it to them. 
You just couldn’t believe how they smiled when I arrived at the door,” she said. 

Years have passed, but the giving gal still tries to help anyone in need. “A guy came by my house recently and said he didn’t have money to send to 
school for his children’s lunches. I gave him $20. That’s what you do. You help people,” Esta said, while smiling. 

While fondly remembering her life, she recalled the day she first met her soon-to-be husband. “He’d have to come up Laurel to the post office on his horse.
One day I said mommy I think that man is riding backward on that horse. She said, “No Esta, he is turned around and flirting with you.” 
We got married three years later. Everyone thought the world of Herman,” she recalled. 

In order to find work, Esta and Herman moved to Indiana for a while. But then a few years later they moved back to Kentucky and bought a farm with 
Herman’s sister in Walnut Grove. She said the 100-acre farm was purchased for $2,400. Esta couldn’t recall the exact date, but believed it to be some 
time in the late 20s or early 30s. “We then sold the farm to a Mr. Davis. We got $3,800 out of it. That was real good money back then for selling a farm. 
We grew tobacco on it, so that made it worth more,” she remembered. 

The couple moved to Olive Hill, but Herman sadly passed away in 1972. She said the quaint little town has been her home for many years and she has no 
plans of leaving. “I love this place. Olive Hill is a nice town to live in. If you are hungry, the churches here will feed you and that’s what 
I believe in, is feeding people if they are hungry and taking care of your neighbors,” she commented. 

Esta has lived an enriched life and smiles when she speaks of her children Marcus, Lloyd, Pat, Marshall, Shirley, Betty Jo and Mary Alice. Although the 
passing of her grandson Mike still makes her sad, Esta smiles when speaking of how she raised him.

“I love being a mother. I can remember when Marcus and Marshall were in Korea. Herman always told everyone that I slept on my elbows, while praying. 
He was right. I never stopped praying until they walked back through the door,” she recalled. 

When asked the secret to her longevity, Esta said she recommends exercise and a healthy lifestyle in order to reach 97. “God has blessed me to allow 
me to live this long and be with my children. I also eat a lot of onions, and I take a lot of herbs. I never smoked cigarettes or drank spirits in my life.
I do drink a lot of tea,” she said. 

In three years, Esta can say she is a century old, but a person wouldn’t know it by sitting down and talking with her. 
Her keen eyesight and vivid memory keeps everyone around Esta on their toes. “I have perfect vision and I can just about tell you anything you want to 
know,” she said. 

During her interview Friday with a Journal-Times reporter, Esta performed a couple banjo tunes and a few minutes of exercising. 
While handing the banjo over to her son Marcus, who was returning the instrument to the car, Esta told him not to forget to lock the car doors. 
While smiling she turned and said, “He’s forgetful sometimes. I have to keep after him,” she commented

Submitted by: Linda Cheeks Pittano

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