Juanita Bass, November 12, 2018


Juanita Bass, November 12, 2018
Juanita Bass
Barbara Pratt
Bridgewater, NY
Everett Holmes
Esther Holmes
White folks
Minstrel shows
Farm life
Model T Ford
Jim Crow
General Electric
Token blacks
Soul food
Syracuse Herald
White House Berries Inn
Famous guests
Michael Latreille
Juanita's Soul Classics
Fort Drum
Juanita Bass, née Holmes, was born in Bridgewater, New York, on May 19, 1935. She is the daughter of Everett Holmes, who was the first African American to be elected to the position of mayor in New York State. Juanita grew up on a farm; her father was a sharecropper, and she describes her family as being poor. However, she talks at length about how attentive her father was to all the children's needs.

Bridgewater is a very small, rural town in Central New York. There would not have been many African Americans living there during Juanita's childhood. She did have some cousins that lived close by. Juanita attended the local public school with white children from the community. Her father and his siblings were musical and put on hoedowns for the white people in the community. He would cook, play the banjo, and call the square dances. He also traveled around with his children and put on minstrel shows. Juanita did not like wearing the exaggerated make-up and pickaninny braids She excelled at school, participated in many activities, and was elected Queen of the Senior Ball. She frequently faced racism as a child, especially when she went out of the community or someone new came in. She had white friends who defended her, and they planned their Senior Trip so that she could participate. To her dismay, Washington DC and New York City revealed the prejudice that was rampant in the 1950s, and she suffered the sting of the Jim Crow era even as her classmates stood by her.

Juanita got her first job at General Electric in Utica, got married, and had six children. After several promotions, she finally left GE after the birth of her fifth child. She devoted herself to being a mother–gardening, sewing, cooking, and having fun with her children–in their home in Frankfort, NY. She also began her entrepreneurial career. She got into collecting and selling antiques, and then purchased a Victorian home in Bridgewater in 1988. She gutted and restored the home and opened the White House Berries Inn, a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast. She became famous for her soul food–especially her banana cream pie. People would come from all over to get their “Juanita fix,” and she was written up in several newspapers, magazines, and even a book. She received many famous guests along with loyal regulars.

After 13 years, she closed the business, but she has continued to be an entrepreneur. She holds estate sales and supplies the military with sweet potato pie. Products from Juanita's Soul Classics, like seasonings and fish coating, can be found in local Price Choppers and specialty stores. Juanita has earned many awards for her leadership in the community and for her entrepreneurial spirit, but she is probably most proud of her children. She loves life, and at 83, she is still working on her next great idea.

Juanita speaks with a lot of energy and knows how to tell a tale. My interview with Juanita (she does not like to be called Mrs. Bass) barely scratched the surface. She spoke candidly about her experiences with racism. There were several stories that did not make it into our interview, like the yearly “Colored Picnic” at Sylvan Beach and racial profiling by a police officer when she went to meet with someone about antiques. These topics would be good subjects for future interviews and additional research. We spent a lot of time focusing on her businesses, but she would willingly discuss her views on politics and the current state of race relations in our country.
JB: Juanita Bass
BP: Barbara Pratt

[START OF TRACK 1, 00:00]

This is the November 12, 2018, interview of Juanita Bass by Barbara Pratt for the Cooperstown Graduate Program's Research and Fieldwork course, recorded at Juanita's home in Frankfort, New York.
So, Juanita, where did you grow up and what was it like?

Well, I was born and raised in Bridgewater, New York. May 19, 1935. A long time ago. My father's name was Everett Holmes, and my mother's name was Esther. Grew up there and probably four years into my life, my mother decided that she had to leave. And she did, in the middle of the night, in the wintertime, barefooted. And left us with my dad. There were seven of us. My youngest sister was a baby in the crib. I can remember that more, of course, more than anything. Devastating. But we realized, after she was gone for awhile, the house was really quiet–no fighting, no screaming, none of that stuff. And so that was a good thing, that part, but we missed her terribly, and really didn't see her again until probably three years later, on Christmas Eve. She came to the house bearing gifts and was not allowed to come into the house and had to leave them on the porch. And she left, and we never saw her again for quite a while.

[TRACK 1, 02:03]

But my dad kind of took over. He lived on a farm, like a sharecropper. He didn't own the farm, but he lived and worked the farm for Mr. Pierce. He was able to take care of the seven of us by himself, through all the illnesses, and the measles, and the chicken pox. I don't know how he did it. He was amazing. He always made a game out of a sickness. We all got chicken pox, all seven of us together. It was like every other day, somebody would come down with it. So he kind of made a game out of everything with us throughout our life because I guess I don't know if he felt guilty or he felt that there was a lot missing in our life and he had to make up for all that. For instance, when we all got sick, he would bring our beds out of the bedrooms and put them all in the big front room in front of the old wood-burning stove. He had us all there so he could take care of us all together. And every day he'd look at you and see if you were feeling better and if you were feeling better, you could sit up on the edge of the bed. Then the next day you could get out of bed and sit in the chair by the stove. The day after that you could go to the doorway, look into the kitchen, but not go into the kitchen. So, every day, he wanted us to feel better. At the end of the measle bout that we had, we could finally go out into the dining room, into the kitchen, and you knew you were all better. And then you'd wake up the next morning, because you had to go back to school, for those that were going to school, and on the wall hanging–he'd pound some nails in the wall–and on the wall would be hanging a new dress or a new pair of pants or a new shirt that he had gone out and bought for us to wear to school when we felt better. He made a game like that of everything. Everything that he did was to encourage us to feel better. With seven kids by yourself all sick, you've got to figure out how to get these kids, even if they're not feeling better, they're going to tell me they're feeling better whether they are or not. I remember that about him--those sorts of things that he did. Then, going off to school not having a whole lot. He did all the shopping. He would shop, and he knew exactly what [to get]. We didn't go with him, but he'd bring back a dress or a pair of shoes, and they'd fit exactly. He knew exactly what size we wore and what kind of dress he thought we would like, and ribbons for our hair, and stuff like that. He did all that stuff. I remember, especially during the commencement exercises at the end of the year, we didn't have much during the year; we were very poor. We didn't have much during the year, but he made sure that we had white dresses, white shoes, and white socks, and white ribbons in our hair. And our cousins would come and fix our hair all up. Yeah, he was pretty proud of us. He went to that extreme to fill in the void, things that my mother would have done. But we had a lot of fun. I mean it was sad, but we got used to the fact that she wasn't there, and there were so many things going on with him in our lives, like being on a farm.

[TRACK 1, 00:05:42]

We loved music. He loved music. He played the banjo and my aunt played piano and my uncle played the piano. On Saturday night, he would have a hoedown at our house. He'd roll up the old carpet in the front room and move all the chairs out onto the porch–the old beat-up couches. And people would come from all over the neighborhood. Some with tractors, some with a horse and buggy, back in the day. He'd go shopping that morning, and he'd bring back oysters and hamburgers and onions, and he'd make oyster stew and homemade ice cream, and he would have all this wonderful food ready for the people that would come then. All the white folks, all the neighborhood white folks, would come, and they would square dance and sing. My father was a wonderful square dance caller. He would call and it would go on all night long. Us kids, we were a part of it. He'd let us hang out. But eventually somebody would carry us off to bed, and we'd fall asleep sitting in the corner watching these people act the fool, with the beer and the hamburgers and [laughing] all that. And we stayed too, so we could eat some of that good food. But he did that all the time. He did that, like, once a month he'd have hoedown.

[TRACK 1, 07:17]

How big was Bridgewater at that time?

Bridgewater wasn't that big. I don't know how many people. I really never knew how many people were there. You know, what the population was, but it wasn't that big of a town. But it was a small, quaint little town. It had a big hotel there. There was a big hotel there. The train station there is still there. Because my father would put the milk on the wagon in the wintertime and, with the horses and the sleigh, and take the milk to the milk station down in Bridgewater. So, it was exciting and fun because there was always something going on.

[TRACK 1, 07:57]

Also, now they're outlawed, but also my father loved to organize the minstrel shows. I hated it. I hated it–because I didn't like being black. It wasn't easy, it wasn't fun, because I always felt like I was less than everybody else. Especially when you left Bridgewater, they'd look at you like you were, you know, you were not...and that was hard. You know, that was hard. But my father would, he'd do these minstrels, and he'd organize them and all the cousins, there were tons of his cousins. My father's sisters all had children, and everybody was talented. Beautiful voices, and he'd organize. He'd do these skits and we'd have to black our faces. The red lips and the white around, and the little pickaninny braids. Yeah, I thought that was extreme, but he did it and they loved it. Of course, we'd travel from school to school; I'd call it dinner theater, but we'd be on the stage acting crazy, and then white folks would be down in the auditorium, tables all set up, maybe eating a chicken-and-biscuit dinner, and raising money for something. But we were the main attraction because of that.

[TRACK 1, 09:10]

So, it was really for a white audience?

Yeah. Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And they loved it. The white people. And my father loved it. What I liked about it was the rehearsals in our house. All the cousins would come, and they would dance. They would square dance, and my father would yell out instructions. And little skits for my brothers, little funny skits for them that he would put on. There were four younger [children], and I was one of the middle children, so we didn't get to do the dancing, the square dancing and all the dance routines and stuff. My sister did, because she was older, and my brothers, but we didn't get to do that. At the end of the show, my father would put us in a wagon and drag us across the stage. He'd want us to wave to the audience. That was the end. They'd have a big sign that said "The End," and he'd drag us. And everybody had to look toward the audience. Well, I didn't. I'd refuse to look; I'd turn my head. I looked at the curtain. I wouldn't look at the audience. I thought, “I don't want...I don't like this.”

[TRACK 1, 10:19]

So, what didn't you like about it? What like...

Because I thought it was degrading because I thought they were making fun, and I didn't like being black. It wasn't easy. My father was a little more comfortable in his skin than I was, you know. Took me a long time. Because I had so many bad experiences, as I told you, when we went on the Senior Trip. And, new kids would come to school and they'd call me "nigger." I remember one little girl. A new girl got on the bus one day and there were no seats left, and the bus driver told her to sit next to me. "My mother told me not to sit next to no niggers." He grabbed her and he sat her down, "That's Juanita, and you sit next to her and you're gonna like it." And he made her sit next to me, and she didn't like it for a long, long time, but, you know, she became one of my best friends. She really did. But that sort of stuff went on a lot. When the new kid came to town, they would always call. I remember one time one of my classmates, somebody called me a nigger, "She's not a nigger. That's Juanita." So, they defended us. You know, the kids in the schools. They knew us, defended us a lot. So, we had to go through that kind of thing and stupid remarks. "Coon." They called us "coon," and just all kinds of names. That's why I say I love my name, so that's why I can tell you that everybody calls me, I'm not Mrs. Bass. My name is Juanita, and even my kids I want to call me Juanita because I've been called so many things other than Juanita. That's my name and I love it.

[TRACK 1, 00:11:55]

Growing up in Bridgewater, growing up on the farm, we had gardens. My father would plant fabulous gardens and we had gardens, we had fruit trees, we canned. My older cousins sometimes would come and live with us and they would help us can the meat. We canned beef because we had cows and pigs and I hated that. I hated butchering time because I'm an animal lover and I knew Dad was going to butcher the pigs, and I'd run in the closet and hide and cry. Because I could hear them squealing--it was terrible. Cutting the heads off chickens. I hate all that stuff. I was a sad little girl, I guess. A lot of things I liked about [growing up], because we were very, very close.

[TRACK 1, 12:43]

And we did a lot of fun things with my dad. He'd always take us on a Sunday morning, "Okay kids, us kids are going to do this. Us kids are going to do this." He'd get us all dressed up, and we'd go to Norwich to Aunt Stella's house. It was his aunt. Aunt Stella had a great house. There were not that many black people in Norwich, but they were one of the families. She was a day worker. She'd go around to different houses and clean their houses and stuff like that. Because of that, people would give her stuff. She had beautiful things. She had a beautiful dining room table and oriental rugs. She would cook and [groan of delight], "I want to be just like her when I grow up," because I loved her aprons that she had. She had beautiful gardens with the wicker furniture, the patio furniture, and the flowers. I just loved her–she was so elegant, so classy, and I wanted to be like that when I grew up because I didn't have a mother to take any of that stuff from, to get any of that great stuff from her. But I got it from her. I got it from Aunt Stella. I always said, "When I grow up, I'm going to be just like her." So that's why I love stuff. I like giving parties, I like doing all this stuff. My father would take us, and she would make dinner for us. He would get us all dressed up, seven of us. And this long, long dining room table–looked like it was three miles long–mahogany with beautiful china and candelabras and stuff. She would make the best food, and everything would be served on platters and beautiful stemware.

[TRACK 1, 14:21]

When we'd go home, we would drink out of a peanut butter jar or jelly jar or something. And napkins–we didn't have napkins. We didn't even have toilet paper. We had an outdoor toilet, the outhouse, and you go to the bathroom there. That's when we could tell when it was spring, summer, or fall. Because in the spring, you'd use the winter catalog to tear the pages out and use it to wipe. And in the summer, you would [laughing]. We knew it must be summer because we got the winter catalog here, and we're tearing out pages and using it for toilet paper. [more laughing] And that's what we had. When we went to Aunt Stella's, it was just the opposite. She had everything. She had fine soap, she had running water, she had indoor plumbing and stuff. And so I thought, “Okay, that's how she lives. I'm gonna live like that someday.”

[TRACK 1, 00:15:13]

How did you get to Aunt Stella's?

Well, my father had a car. He had a little Model T Ford with a rumble seat. He'd put the boys in the back. He put us girls in the back behind him, and the three boys would ride in the rumble seat. He'd squish us all in there and away we'd go. And Aunt Stella would always be happy because we'd behave. We didn't mess around with my dad. All he had to do is look at us. He never had to beat us, spank us, just look at us. And that was all he had to do. We knew–straighten up, or else. But we were good kids. We were good and that's why he could take us by himself. He could take us places. And people loved to see us coming because they knew that we were going to behave. But those meals that she put on, I tell you, they were fabulous. So, I learned a lot from her, and I wanted to be like her.

[TRACK 1, 16:08]

All during school, I joined all the groups: 4-H and Girl Scouts. I did all the things that all the other kids would do. And I played basketball, I played volleyball, I played soccer. And I was in the band. I played saxophone in a dance band, I played clarinet in a marching band, and I sang in the chorus. So, I was very involved in everything that was going on. And I was queen of the Senior Ball. And you know that was surprising. I was the only black girl in the class. I got voted in as queen of the Senior Ball. And you know how I got voted in? Back then the school went from kindergarten to high school, so everybody was mixed together. I knew the first graders by their first name. We just loved each other. We took care of the little guys. They loved us. They would vote. They had these jars. You could vote for who you wanted to be queen of the Senior Ball. And all the kids were able to vote. Even the first graders. Not just the Seniors. So, come time to count the pennies, I had all the pennies, boy. So that's how I got to be voted in to be the queen of the Senior Ball.

And what did being the queen mean? What did you do?

So, I had a king, who was voted king. George Ferrucci. I loved George. George like me too. I mean as a friend. He was the one that would fight if somebody called me a nigger. Boy, he was right there, pounding the crap out of them. He'd defend me all the time. But he was great. He was in my class. So, he was king and I was queen. And he came to pick me up. I had my gown. He came to the house with a corsage. That was really special. And I felt special. Even though I felt beneath the rest of them, you know what I'm saying? I still felt, “Why me? How did I get this? How was I able to get this?”

Because how many were there in your class?

There was only eight of us. And then to get picked out of.... And the principal's daughter was in my class. Janice. Janice Johnson. She was my best friend. Her and I were like this. [holds fingers together] Still are. We talk all the time. She lives up in Syracuse. George was a sweetheart. He was such a sweetheart. He got killed. He got killed probably 1950, [19]55. Maybe two or three years after we graduated. He was working at the gravel pit, and it caved in on him and it killed him. I was working at the time at GE. I had gotten a job at GE, and I was working at the time. They called his mother, who worked there at the plant, and she came to me, because they called her, and she had to leave. So, she came down to the line where I was working. She said, "I think your king has gone." She said, "I'm not sure." She said, "I think he's gone. They said he had a terrible accident." But they hadn't found out that he was gone. But she said, "I think something terrible happened to your king." And then, sure enough, he passed away. He had died. But that was a big disappointment. Not a disappointment; he was my heart. Even though I was dating my future husband at the time-- because I dated him all through high school, my husband, my late husband, all through high school--but George was still part of my life. He was such a great, great friend. Always stuck up for me. When I was around him, I always felt safe. Because when we went on our Senior Trip.... I told you high school was...grade school was fine, and I was a good student. You know, I was a good student. I got good marks. I really did.

[TRACK 1, 20:11]

Then when it came time to go on our Senior Trip, four years we raised money to pay for the trip. Then I found out that all this prejudice was going on in other parts of the country. It wasn't so bad in Bridgewater, but it was bad enough. So, I found out that there were places that I couldn't go with the kids, I couldn't stay with the kids, I couldn't eat with the kids. I found that out the night before we were supposed to leave, and I told the kids, the other seven students, "I am not going. I'm not going--I'm not going to go down there." And they said, "Well, if you don't go, we're not going." And they spent all that time, four years, raising money to go. So against my will, I went. Just for the kids. And it was not fun. It was not easy. It was not fun. It was a horrible place. A horrible trip. And it should have been fun. But the kids had fun. But I kind of would smile and laugh and kind of be together with them when I could. But when I didn't feel comfortable, then I would stay in the hotel. Then one of them would stay with me, which was not fair. But I had one of the girls who didn't want to go anyway. She didn't want to go out. She was kind of a little country gal, and she'd rather stay with me than to go out.

So where did you end up going?

We went to New York. We went to Washington, DC first. In the hotel, the Willard Hotel, we finally got a room there. I didn't realize, but the kids--I mean, months before we left--they did all the research. My classmates. What restaurants to go to, which hotels to try to get into, where not to go with me. They did all that. To make sure that I was going to be comfortable. They were protecting me. She said, "Oh, you have no idea what we went through." They just told me that, like, two years ago. I had no idea. "What we went through to make it easier for you because we wanted you to go." And the Willard Hotel--they finally let me, said we could stay at the Willard Hotel, but I had to go in the back door. I couldn't go in the front door with the students. They all went in the back door. "No, we're not going in that damn front door." So, they all went in the back door with me. I was angry all the while I was in Washington. And angrier still when I got to New York City because I was standing in line waiting at the lunch counter, the cafe. Standing in line and somebody came up to me, "You need to get behind--the end of the line." And so the other kids said, "Okay." "Not you guys. You guys don't have to go." "Oh, yes we do. We're with her." So, they all turned around, and we all went to the back of the line. So that kind of stuff. We had to deal with that kind of stuff. So, the Senior Trip was not very fun. For me.

[TRACK 1, 23:18]

When I got home I was going to go to work. My father wanted me to go on to college and become a home economics teacher. I was madly in love with Clarence Bass, and I just had to get married, wanted to get married. I thought, “Let me get a job and work until we decide to get married.” So my father says, "Okay, I'll take you down." They were hiring in General Electric on French Road and paying big bucks; it was nice money. For an 18-year-old it was like, holy cat.

What was big bucks?

You know, you're making like probably five, six dollars an hour. Bringing home maybe two hundred fifty dollars a week. Back in the [19]50s that's a lot of money. So, anyway, my father said, "Well, you know, Charlotte..." Charlotte, one of our neighbors, she was probably 10-15 years older than I am. She got a job there and he said, "She's there, so why don't you go down, and we'll try." We drove down, and I went into the office and this lady tells me that they're not hiring. They're all done hiring; they don't need anymore. Of course, we knew better because Charlotte had told us that she had just gotten hired. So, I said, “Well, you know what? Don't give up.” I told my father, "Take me down to the employment office down in Utica,” and we went down there. And I went in and I said, "I'm looking for a job." I told him I just graduated and all this kind of stuff. And he said, "Have you gone to French Road? GE?" I said, "I just left there, and they said they're not hiring." He said, "Oh, yes, they are." He said, "You wait here." I was sitting in front of him. He grabbed the phone. He picked up the phone, and he says, "Freida Bernie, this is so-and-so down at the employment office." He said, "I have this beautiful girl here. She said her name is Juanita Holmes. She says that she just graduated. She's smart, graduated with honors. She's black. She's a black girl," he said, "but you need to hire her. I'm sending her right back." And so we got in the car, and my father said, "What happened?" I said, "Yes." I said, "We're going back to GE." He said, "Really?" I said, "Yes, they told her that they had to hire me." So, I went back, and she was red as a tomato, her face, when she saw me walk in there. She hired me, and that was it. You know, that was it. I was in.

[TRACK 1, 25:46]

But I was the only black female there in that plant at that time. They had maybe four or five black engineers, young black men from Ohio and Pennsylvania and all over the country that they had brought in because they had to have some blacks. There's always a token. You know, we're called token blacks. They've got to hire a few because the state said, the government says, you have to. I always say, "Don't hire me because of the color of my skin, hire me because you think I can do the job." That's what I wanted. Well, I got the job, and I did just fine. Every time a promotion came up, or a better job, I would take it. So, when I left there, I was an inspector for the Navy. When everything came off the line, I inspected it. When I said it was okay, then it went on to the Navy. I thought, “Ah, I've made it. Because of me, now that one thing that I checked now it can go off to the Navy. It's okay to go.” So, I feel like I had accomplished something while I was there. And I was a good employee. I worked there for 10 years.

[TRACK 1, 26:49]

Until I had my last baby. I had five kids working there. Then I had my last baby, Carla. And when I had her, I decided I'm not going to go back anymore. I'm going to stay home. Bought this little house right here in Frankfort. Bought the house in Frankfurt. 1963. And I quit and I left the job and I came here. At that time my husband had purchased an adult care home. We had a partner. And they purchased an adult care home in Utica called the Golden Age Home, and they ran that for years. And so we were able to buy this house. I was able to stay home and stay with my kids and just be a good mommy like I wanted to because, like I say, I was raised without a mother. I always wanted six kids. I always wanted seven kids. That's what my mother had. I always wanted seven. Well, I had two at once. The first ones were twins. I said, "Well, it's not going to take me long to get to [seven] if I keep having them two at a time. Not going to take me long to get seven." But then I had the last one, Carla. I go, "She's seven all rolled into one.” That's it. No more. I'm not going to go for seven. She's plenty. [laughing].

[laughing] She was a challenging one!

Ooh, boy! But I tell her to this day I want to be just like her when I grow up. She's fabulous. She just does everything. Anyway, so I stayed home at the house here. I had a big garden. Every year I'd plant. I got orchards. I got apples and pears. I did have a peach tree but that one died. But apples and pears and grapes and a huge garden. All this stuff I planted myself. I would can. We have 40 acres, so we had tons of blackberries, and we made jam. I just enjoyed it. I loved it out here. Because I'm a seamstress, I made all their clothes, I made my clothes. I just did all the things that I thought mothers should do. You know? That I wanted to do. I loved being a mother. Some of the parents couldn't wait for school to start back in the fall. I couldn't wait for school to get out in the summer because I knew I had somebody to play with. Because my kids, we just had such a great time doing all sorts of things. We just had fun. We just had a ball. And then we finally got some horses. We ended up with 14 riding horses as we built the stable out there. We had horses, and we just did all the fun stuff. We had company every weekend. People would come out and ride horses, and I would feed them. Oh, my God, I'd cook, and I'd feed the people. It was like a resort here. And then I decided, "Gee, I'm a pretty darn good cook. I should start charging these people for eating all my food that I cooked.” So, then I decided. Like when we'd go to visit my father in Bridgewater, there was this house, a beautiful Victorian house, and every time I'd drive by it as we were going by to visit him, it would, like, drag me in. I'd look at that house and I thought, “Oh, my God, I've

[START 0F TRACK 2, 00:00]

got to have that. So, I finally bought it. I bought the house. I went to the bank to get the loan for the house, and they said to me, "We'll give you the money, but you have to bring your husband in." So, I thought, "Uh, my husband doesn't...he has a business. He doesn't want a restaurant. I want the restaurant." So anyway, my oldest daughter, Crystal, was working in Albany–had a really good job–and she said, "Mom, I'll put my name on with yours, if you want, really want it." And so I said, "I'm not sure if I need it." I said, "How can I buy it without my husband's signature?" The house was only like forty-nine thousand dollars at that time. It was really inexpensive. I said, "How could I buy that house without my husband having to cosign or whatever?" They said to me, "Well, you'd have to have twenty thousand dollars down. Well, where am I getting twenty thousand dollars down? I'm not going to ask him for it. I'm not going to borrow it. And I'd been in the antique business. It was another thing I started when I stopped working. Started getting into selling antiques. Lots of stuff I would save, the better stuff I'd keep. I had stuff under the bed, I had stuff in closets. And I thought to myself, “Why don't I sell some of my stuff? I got all this stuff.” The kids said, "Oh, Ma, don't sell that, don't sell that, don't sell that." You know, all those different things. I called dealer friends of mine that I knew were interested in some of the things that I had. Within three days, I had raised twenty thousand dollars out of stuff that was under the bed, in the closets, all over the place. So, I had enough, and I still had a house full of stuff. And the kids didn't even notice that the stuff was gone. They didn't want me to sell. So, I raised it. I said to my daughter, "Crystal," I said, "We can take your name [off]." "Naw, just leave your name on." So, I left it on. But I didn't need her signature at all. So, I got my house. And that's how I did it. Selling all this great stuff that I had come up with.

Then I thought, “Now I got to figure out...we've got to fix this house up.” So, I got a small business loan. They gave me a small one, and then we gutted it. We did all the interior. We gutted it. We took down all the lathe and plaster and put up plasterboard. I did have to hire out for a little bit, but my family did all the work. My kids, my cousins, my friends. They'd come in on weekends, and they'd tear down ceilings and put in new floors. It was amazing.

Then, to buy the equipment, I had to have equipment. Restaurant equipment is really expensive. So, somebody called me and said, "Juanita, that little restaurant down by the arterial is going out of business.” They had a little diner. So, I went down and I walked in, and here's this little tiny diner. It was a mess. Everything had like this much grease all over it. I said, "No wonder they're out of business." But, anyway, I said to the guy, "How much do you want for everything here?" He says, "Five thousand dollars." I go, "What?" He says, "Yeah." The stoves, their freezer, the refrigerator, their counters, their dishes, their china, I mean the whole thing. So, I bought it. We went down. Two days. I took my crew down that was working on the house. We all went down, and we gutted it. We took out their freezer, the air conditioner, their telephones. We took all of it, everything we could. The dishwasher, everything that was in there, we took out. Took it down, put it in the backyard of the restaurant. Then we started scrubbing and cleaning it up. Degreaser. We cleaned everything up till it was like brand new. Then we moved it into the restaurant. So that's how we got all that wonderful equipment. For nothing. Because a stove alone, a stove like the one we had, was, like, seven thousand dollars. Everything just kind of fell into place. You know, everything fell into place.

Then we said, "Well, it's time." That was in [19]89. So, we started. We were going to open in [19]89; we weren't quite ready. But this guy that owned a restaurant over in Sherburne said to me–he was a friend of mine, used to buy antiques so that's how I got to know him, but he also owned a restaurant. He says, "What are you doing? Why don't you host a party for all my friends and my guests at your restaurant for Christmas?" I said, "I'm not even ready to open." I said, "I'm not ready." He said, "But you're ready. You could have a party." I said, "Yeah, I could...." But I didn't have my license and all this stuff. I said, "I could host."
And it was beautiful in there. When we got in, it was just gorgeous. So anyway, I said, "What do you want me to serve?"

[TRACK 2, 05:32]

He said, "What are you going to serve at the restaurant?" I said, "All soul food." He said, "That's what we want." So, he came with all these people. It was the editor of the Syracuse Herald. It was the president of Syracuse University. All these people came to my restaurant for this party that had gone to his restaurant. Well, they loved it. It was a huge, huge hit. And so when we finally opened, this restaurant critic, Yolanda Wright–she wrote for the Syracuse Herald–came to the restaurant right after the party, or after we officially opened in 1990. It was 1989, 1990 we finally opened and were ready for business. And she came. I didn't know who she was. But one of the waiters came up, one of my waiters, Erin, she comes up, "Juanita, there's a lady in there, and she keeps eating and she keeps writing, and she's eating and writing." I said, "Really?" She was getting worried. We're young, you know, we're brand new. We never had a restaurant before. We didn't know what we were doing, we didn't think. Well, anyway, I went into the dining room. She beckoned me with her finger, and she said to me, "Are you the owner?" I said, "Yes, I am." I'm all proud of myself, but scared. She said, "I just have to tell you who I am. I don't usually tell people who I am. I come in, I eat, I write. I can either make you or break you." That's what she said. She said, "I have to tell you, this is one of the finest restaurants," she said, "that I have been to in a long, long time." She said, "When I get through with you, you're going to want to kill me. First of all, you're not going to be able to keep up with the requests of the diners." And she said, "And, I want to make sure you always have the banana cream pie, because the pie is worth the trip." That was my own recipe. My banana cream pie was fabulous.

[TRACK 2, 07:41]

She said, "And make sure you have enough banana cream pie for everybody." So she did. She went home, and she wrote this big article on the front page of the Syracuse Herald. And it says, "White House Berries Inn Ripe for Big Success." And she was right. The people started calling and coming. They would make reservations and reserve two pieces or four pieces of banana cream pie. We always had to have banana cream pie.

[TRACK 2, 08:11]

People came from all over. I had famous people there. I had Dr. Betty Shabazz. I had Werner Klemperer. I had Jerry Freeman, who was a big photographer out of New York.
I had the editor of New Yorker magazine, the director of Lincoln Center. All these people, you know, they would come. They would come from New York. They'd call from New York City. They said, "Juanita, we need a ‘Juanita fix.' We're driving up on Friday. Can you reserve two pork chops for us and then a room?" Because they'd stay overnight. So that's how it went, and it was like that all the time. It was just fabulous. All the famous people and the articles and the magazines and the books. I've been written up in Country Living. I've been written up in Country Victorian, in the book called America's Painted Ladies. It's a book you can still get at the library. It's about 45 houses, Victorian houses, from Maine to California. I was one of the houses that was in that book. I'm in that book, because the colors were absolutely beautiful.

The process of getting it all together. I would shop–for a year, it took me a year to get it ready to open. I would shop, and I would think, “Okay, this is going to go there, and this is going to go there.” So, when I got it all together, my daughter would say, "How did you know that that was gonna work in that room, with those colors?" And I said, "I knew because I knew what I wanted it to look like." Putting it all together, with the help of my family, my family was absolutely fabulous. Very supportive. My husband at the time was still my husband. We divorced probably three years after I opened up the restaurant, but that's another story. But it was all good, and we remained buddies. Because he was my best buddy. He was a supporter of mine. He really was.

And the kids, all my friends, all my family, everybody was just super. I hired local kids to work. To work there at the restaurant. They were great because on their day off, they wouldn't stay home. They came to work on their day off because they loved being at the restaurant because we had so much. I said, "It's your day off." "I don't know, but it's so boring. I got nothing to do." They'd come out and they'd hang out and help the dishwasher wash dishes. They weren't getting paid. They were just helping, you know, putting food on the plate. It was amazing. They absolutely loved [it] and I talked to all the people that had worked for me. One of them nominated me for Boss of the Year one time. I got nominated and had the big ceremony up in Utica. It was great because I wasn't, you know, salespeople would come in and say, "Where's your boss?" "We don't have one, but there–she owns it." They'd point to me. He said, "Oh." I said, "No, we don't have a boss here. We don't tell people what to do. We ask them to do things." And they did say, "I'll do that for you." It was great, it was just great. The kids absolutely loved it. We had the best time. We had it for 13 years. We'd get people from all over the country there. We had people that would go to the Horned Dorset; they had been doing the Horned Dorset forever. Then they would find me, and they'd stop going to the Horned Dorset. They said, "We used to go to the Horned Dorset." I'd say, "You don't go there anymore?" "No, we like it here."

So, were you there every day?

Every day.

Were you in the kitchen?

Well, you know what? When I first started, I hired my husband's nephew. He was considered a good cook. He had cooked in different places. He started, but then he left. But they were all my recipes. Everything was my recipes. But then he left. Then I was going to hire my sister who already had a job. She worked over in Oriskany Falls at a hospital supply place over there. I don't know what they called it in Oriskany Falls, but she worked there. And I thought, “Well, you know what? Let me hire her.” Because she was a good cook. I said, "You want to come to work for me?" She goes, "Yeah, that would be great." So, she came. And my other sister, Doddy, came. So, I had two sisters in the kitchen, and they started cooking. I would make all the desserts anyway. I still made all the desserts myself, but they would do the cooking at night. Do it and get stuff ready. They were really good. When my sister would get sick, or didn't feel good, then somebody had to go in the kitchen. It was me. That was the best thing that ever happened to me because I always said I wanted to own a restaurant, not work in one. Well, honey, you own a restaurant, you work in one, let me tell you. Phew! I started cooking in that kitchen where there were all my recipes, and I started cooking. It was the best. When she couldn't show up, I could go in that kitchen and take over like nobody's business and feed 70, 80, 90 people a night. I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. They loved it when they saw me come out with my white coat. I'd go out with my hat on. But they always saw me dressed up–the hostess. And they see me come out with my cooking: "We thought you were in there cooking. [laughing] We thought you were in there cooking.” Every now and then. But my sister–she was great. She cooked. My sister Doddy. Then we had a gal, Anna Mae Massey. She worked there. We had a nice crew, and it was great.

I think we had, like, ten entrees. We had stuffed pork chops, cornbread dressing. We had steak. We had fried chicken. We had shrimp gumbo. We had catfish. What else did we have? We had a rosemary chicken. So, we had chicken and steak and pork. Then the side dishes were black-eyed peas, hush puppies, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, you know. And then we'd have a cucumber salad. We didn't have tossed salad. It was so funny because when they first started coming to the restaurant, the Italian people [said], "Hey! Where's the salad?" I said, "No salad here, baby." I said, "The only salad we got is potato salad." "But no. No salad? And no bread?" And all this. I said, "Look, you're at my restaurant. This is a soul food restaurant. You're going to eat what I have. Okay, baby doll?" "Well, macaroni and cheese. No sauce?" "Macaroni and cheese. No marinara sauce on that, honey. There's cheese sauce." And I took the bowl out and here he is eating out of the bowl. "Ah, so good." Then he wants to know if he could have more, right? I said, "So you like it, huh?" So every time he'd come we'd laugh about the salad, but there was no salad. But when they first got there, there'd be two hush puppies in a bowl, with hot syrup. And then a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. That's how you started your meal. You didn't have the salad. The only salad we had was a potato salad. We didn't have none of the greens and stuff. But they got used to not having their tomato salad and the pasta was the macaroni and cheese. [laughing]

So, you introduced them to your culture?

Exactly. I said, "This is my kind of...it's a soul food." I said, "Nothing else, honey." And they absolutely loved it. They just went nuts. One guy ordered one of the fried chicken. I said, "You're going to love my fried chicken." So, he ordered it, and he said, "All right." So, he ate it. And when I went to the table, I said, "How was your fried chicken?" He said, "I guess I've never really had fried chicken before. Until now." [laughing] That's all.

The food was great. The people were great. They always got greeted with a hug and a kiss before they left. I know one family used to come from way up north, Lake Placid. They'd come all the time for dinner. That's a long ride. They would come early, and they would leave early, because we opened at 5:00. One day I was in the kitchen cooking, and they left and I didn't know they had left. I gave them just enough time to get home. And I called them on the phone, and I said, "The next time you come, don't you ever leave the restaurant without saying goodbye.” They said, "Oh, you were so busy, we didn't want to bother you." I said, "No, I need to say goodbye to you when you leave here." So that's the way it was. It was always the hugs and the kisses.

Then, it was so funny because even the employees, they wouldn't leave unless they gave me a hug and a kiss at night. But we hired this young kid–very shy. He was really shy. The dishwasher, Ed, was fresh, anyway. Ed said, "You know, you gotta hug her. You know, every night, before you leave." He says, "I do?" He says, "Yes, that's what we do. That's what we do. And we like doing it, right?" And then one night I had to give him a ride home. He never did. He was very shy. It was raining one night. It was really raining hard. And he only lived, you know, like, probably a half a mile from the restaurant. He could've walked. When I dropped him off and he got ready to leave, he reached over to me and gave me a big hug. I said, "Thank you!" He said, "Yeah, thank you." From then on, it was every night when he left. It was always, "I love you." “I love you” when they left. You know, "I love you," " Love you too," is all you heard. All you heard in that restaurant was, "I'm sorry. Excuse me. I'm sorry." My kitchen was so tiny. They were always bumping into each other. It's all you heard. "Oh, I'm sorry." [laughing] "Oh, I'm sorry." They were so polite to one another. It was all I could hear. Somebody must have bumped into somebody out there. But it was a great atmosphere to work in. It was really fun. We loved going to work there, and people loved coming there. That was a great time in my life.

[TRACK 2, 18:54]

We used to get a lot of guests from the Cooperstown area, from the hospital. The doctors all came; Dr. Gold, and all those people. Dr. Gold came one night. He says, "You know how famous you are?" I said, "I don't even want to know." He said, "You don't?" He said, "Well, you're very famous, you know." I said, "No." I said, "It's not important." I said, "I just want you to come and have a great time. Have great food, great conversation. Feel comfortable that you're here." He said, "Well, that's it. That's why you're so famous." I said, "Well, I don't need to know that. That's not why I do this. To be famous. I do it because of you, you know. People like you." So that was really funny. Actually, it was a great experience.

When I decided [to close the restaurant], what happened was, my sister passed away. She was my cook. She passed away. Then I was going to close the restaurant, because another couple were going to come in and buy the restaurant. Well, they came in and they goofed everything up. I was still there. I hadn't sold it to them yet. They were kind of on a trial basis. I said, "This couple's not going to work." And, so, I closed it. It was a big headline in Syracuse: "White House Berries Inn..." Oh my God, everybody was devastated. So then Michael [Latreille] came along. Michael that runs, now owns Michael's. All that stuff there. He came.

[TRACK 2, 20:23]

Michael's in Waterville, right?

Yeah. He came. He was twenty-five years old. He called me up. He said, "You know, I think we should open the restaurant again." I said, "You think so?" He said, "Yeah, I'd like to try it with you." The headlines read: "New Ownership, New Light at the White House Berries Inn" with a big article about Michael and a great big picture of Michael and I in the paper. People were so excited that we had reopened. Like I said, he was twenty-five years old. Didn't know nothing about soul food. But, boy, he learned. He was...he's still fabulous. So, he worked there, and he ran that kitchen. He was fabulous. The stuff that he did. You know, he took my recipes, and he ran with them. I used to take him out to the dining room, and I'd introduce him. They'd look at him, "That white boy can't cook like that." And I said, "Oh, yes, he can. He just made them pork chops for you. He fried that chicken." They were surprised that Michael was back there cooking all their food. Then I wanted to sell it to him. I was ready to not do it anymore, and I wanted to sell it to him. He was going to buy it. And then we would tell people that Michael was going to buy the restaurant [phone call interrupts]. But, anyway, Michael was going to buy the restaurant. People found out that I wasn't going to be there, and they said, "Well, if she's not going to be there, we're not coming anymore." So, he wasn't going to take a chance of buying that restaurant. My customers are not going to show up because I'm not going to be there. So that's why he moved on and then that's why I closed it. I didn't want to run it anymore. I'll do anything until I don't want to do it anymore. That's the kind of person I am, you know. And I loved doing it. While I was doing it, it was great. But then, after a while, you know, I could see when Michael was going to leave I might have to go back into the kitchen and I didn't want to do that. So, we just closed.

[TRACK 2, 22:49]

People were sad; people were crying and all this stuff. I said, "Well, you know what?" Then I decided to put my product on the market after a fashion, probably three years later. Because they kept saying, "Oh, we'll never have your ribs. We can't have this, we can't have that." I said, "You know what? Let me just put a few of my products on the market and then you can try to cook like I did. So that's why I got the products in the market. Price Chopper sells them and Peter's Cornucopia. They're all over the place. And then my sweet potato pies go to the military. So, I'm feeding the soldiers.

[TRACK 2, 23:22]

So tell me about that. How many? What's...?

You know what? It was so funny because I did a couple of shows. I went to a few army bases. You know, they had food shows, and they said I could come and bring my stuff. I took samples of the pies and all my products. Everywhere I went, they just loved my stuff. You know, they loved my stuff.

[TRACK 2, 23:44]

I went to Fort Drum. That's the first one I did. I made home fries for a sample, but this group of people come in. They're called the menu committee. They're all officers. They come in, and you have to feed them. They eat your food, you know. So, anyway, they're all sitting there, and I did home fries with the all-spice seasoning on. Then we did catfish fingers with the fish coating and we did ribs with the barbecue sauce. Then we did the sweet potato pie. We had all this stuff. So, they sat there, and then they ate all my stuff, and I told them about my product. They're all in their uniforms, you know, and just sitting there. And then they ask you to leave, because they discuss your food. So, I left, and when I came back in and the guy said to me–the one that had invited me, Tom–he goes, "Well, you hit a home run." He said, "They love everything you make." The committee. From then on, they started ordering the pies. Then they wanted to do the barbecue sauce, but they had to put it in 10-gallon jugs, or something like that, and we didn't have a facility to do that. So, maybe eventually we'll get it there, where they can buy the barbecue sauce. But now they take the sweet potato pies and the sweet potato pies go to Dubai. And from Dubai they go to Afghanistan and around. But, now, we found we're doing them, and a friend of mine was in Virginia Beach on Labor Day. Virginia Beach and he e-mails me. “I just had your sweet potato pie." And I thought, “How did you get my sweet potato pie in Virginia Beach?” Well, there's an army base there. The families in the area can go to the army base to the store and buy, and that's where they bought my sweet potato pie.

Well, Juanita, we are almost out of time. But, is there anything else you want to bring up? Or, if you could sum up your...

[TRACK 2, 26:01]

My life. I have a great life. I have six children. I created a lot of things, but my best creations are my six kids: my twin girls, Janice and Joyce, my son Kim, my daughter Crystal, my son Kyle, and then my daughter Carla. I mean they're fabulous kids. You know, being married to Clarence Bass for forty-seven years and living out here afforded me to be able to be a good mother but also afforded them to go on to college, every single one of them, and get a good education. Because of that, they're all doing fantastic. The twins are social workers–one suffers from MS [multiple sclerosis]–but social workers. Crystal is a psychotherapist. She works in the school system. She's also a basketball coach. Kim is a writer/producer/director in Hollywood. He created Sister, Sister, the TV show, and then Kenan & Kel, he used to write for In Living Color. He has movies coming out. He's got a premiere coming out November 11 in California, a movie that is called Head Shop. And he's having a screening there. So, that movie, and then he's working on three others. And then my son Kyle just had his first play that he's written. That was part of the season at Syracuse Stage. It broke all records. A full house every night for three weeks. Unbelievable. They got about seven theaters around the country now that are asking for that play. He teaches at Syracuse University. I mean they're fabulous kids. And then Carla, my baby, she was accepted at Cornell University for the vet program. She's brilliant. But she decided to study oceanography, and she went to Southampton College. And then she went to California and graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in science and biology. Worked for a while and decided she didn't want to do that. She wanted to be outside–she's a big tomboy–outside and make a lot of money. I said, “It sounds to me like you should go into construction.” I was just kidding. Well, we spent all this money on her degree in science. And she did. She quit her job. She called me and said, "I got a new job." I say, "What are you doing?" And she says, "I got my license. I'm a crane operator." She built hospitals and airports and stuff like that. And then she travels all over the world. She scuba dives, she skydives. My one son, Kim, he's had his own planes, a couple of planes, but he can fly jets. They're amazing. He speaks seven different languages. These kids are amazing. I could tell you about these kids all day long. Fabulous. Kyle is a classical pianist. He plays. I mean they're amazing. Amazing kids. But, so, Carla, she flies, but she got hurt, so now she's on total disability. She got hurt on the job, so she can't work anymore. But now, her thing now is rescuing cats. So that's what she does. She wants to open up a sanctuary, eventually, for animals that nobody else wants, you know, they want to put down. She'll take them in. She wants to do a Spring Farms out there in California. But, they're fabulous kids. I have one grand-baby. He's 14 years old--that's my son Kim's son. He's 14. He's fabulous. So, kids are great. You know, they're just great. They're fun. Life is good. Life is really good. I have my antique shop and I reopened my antique shop. I do estate sales. I do appraisals. You know, I just keep busy. Keep busy. And trying to figure out what other markets now to get my product into, I want to go into. I've talked to a Wal-Mart and I've talked with the Hannaford. So, we're waiting for that.

[TRACK 2, 29:52]

So, let me ask you a hard question. Do you have kind of a guiding life philosophy? Because you've done so much.

So much. You know what?

[START 0F TRACK 3, 00:00]

I told you at the beginning, I didn't like myself. I didn't like being black. I didn't like the color of my skin. I didn't like my hair. Well, honey, I wouldn't change me for nothing. I love who I am. I probably like me better than anybody else on Earth likes me. I like who I am. I like the fact that I've got the courage to…I'm kind of like a pioneer. I would do things that no other woman would try to do probably–none of my family members would do. I like getting up in the morning because my head is full of ideas, you know. It's crazy. I can't wait to get out of bed. I'm 83. I'll be 84 in May. And I got the greatest compliment. I was out with my daughter the other day, on Saturday, to an open house, and somebody said, “Oh, is this your sister?” And I laughed. My daughter looked at me and looked at the lady, “She'd better be my older sister if she is.” [laughing] I always get called their sister. But, you know, I just love life. I love people. I love people. I love helping people. I love the sun. I love the blue sky. I love fresh air. You know, I just love gardening. Every tree you see on my property, I planted probably 50–we've been here 55 years–probably the second spring we were here, I started putting in apple trees and pear trees. I figured someday we're going to have enough to eat. You know, they're going to grow up and be big and strong. So, all the stuff you see growing here, I planted myself. I like doing things for the earth. I love the earth, and planting and growing. I love my kids. I love people. I love my neighbors. It's all good.

Great. Well, thank you so much, Juanita. It's been great to hear your life story.

Thank you. It's quite a story.

It is. Thank you so much.

Thank you.
Upstate New York
Frankfort, NY
Barbara Pratt
Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta
Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY
480 x 640 pixels
Track 1, 07:57 - Minstrel shows
Track 1, 20:11 - Prejudice
Track 1, 23:18 - Adult life
Track 2, 00:00 - White House Berries Inn
Track 2, 26:01 - Children
Track 2, 29:52 - Wisdom
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