Katherine Corti hits the century mark
“I always get mixed up between that 2000 and 1900 thing,” said Katherine Corti, with a whimsical grin.
And why wouldn’t she? Corti turned 100 years young this month, and by “that 2000 and 1900 thing” to which she’s referring, she means simply remembering the centuries events have taken place in her life.
But don’t let her easygoing wit fool you. I’ve known Corti—known as “Mom-mom” to her family—for nearly twenty years, ever since my brother married her granddaughter. I can tell you that nothing gets past this woman. Even at 100 years old, she’s perfectly aware of how funny it sounds to confuse this century with the last.
The Early Years
Born in 1911 in Royal Oak, Maryland, Corti said her father Levi Walton Kilmon provided a good living for her family when she was a child. “Father was an undertaker, now called a mortician,” said Corti, “and a blacksmith. Since everybody dies, it was a good profession to be in.”
Documents show that Corti’s family settled and lived in Maryland at least as far back as the late 1600’s. Her great, great grandfather was listed there in the 1790 census, and her great grandfather fought in the War of 1812. Corti’s grandmother gave birth to 18 children, only seven of which survived. The odds were against you in those days.
Corti’s mother, Emma Emery, was French-Canadian, and had moved with Corti’s father from Quebec to Maryland after the two married. Her mother’s sister had previously married her father’s cousin, and when Levi went to Canada to attend the wedding, he was stricken by Corti’s mother’s charm. The couple married in 1896, fifteen years before Corti was born.
Back then, Royal Oak was a tiny town like so many others across the United States. There were only fifty homes in Royal Oak, and the roads, explained Corti, were “paved” with oyster shells which were in ready supply from the nearby bay. A gallon of kerosene cost exactly 9¢. Corti remembers vividly because her aunt would “holler” at her across the road to go get her some kerosene. For her trouble Corti would get to keep the 1¢ that was left over, but at the time a penny could buy plenty of candy to enjoy.
There was a two-room schoolhouse near Royal Oak for children to attend up to the 7th grade. Even more shocking, “There were only two kids in Royal Oak, Maryland at that time,” said Corti. Two kids, including little Katherine and her cousin.
Corti enjoyed her childhood in the small rural community. “It was all farm country,” she said proudly, “and I was an only child.” She must have been something of a tomboy by today’s standards, pointing out that she liked to fish and had her own little boat and would go fishing and crabbing nearby in the Chesapeake Bay. She used to use the horse hair from when her father would shoe horses to tie flies for fishing, taking her boat out to fish almost every day whenever weather allowed.
Corti had to work the bellows for her father when he was blacksmithing, a tough job that taught her the meaning of honest labor. Corti told a story about when she was just a girl and would get paid a nickel to work the bellows for her father. She went up to him when he was talking with a customer and asked her dad for her nickel. He was so mad that he gave her a spanking and never did pay her for that day’s work.
“I grew up with no power and no electric lights back then,” said Corti. We used oil lamps and lanterns.” She said there were not many automobiles around at the time either. “There were five cars when I lived in Royal Oak. My father had one,” she explained, “so later on he also got a hearse. Before that we had horses and carriages.”
Corti first learned to drive in her cousin’s car, a brand new Model T Ford, when she was only 12 years of age. Her cousin would let her ride with him up to the gates of his property, and then after she opened the gates he would let her drive up through the fields from there. Before long she knew how to drive well, and then in a turnabout on today’s driver’s education, she had to teach her father how to drive.
When the influenza epidemic struck the nation in 1918, Corti got sick with the flu even though her parents did not. Because of its small population, Royal Oak didn’t get hit that hard according to Corti. “There were so many people [dying], they had to just use wooden caskets.” Corti remembers riding home as a young girl in the back of the wagon that picked up the wood from the lumber yard so she didn't have to walk home, still giggling today at the thought.
Obviously Corti survived the influenza, and her family swears that the ordeal made her immune system stronger than the average person. Her granddaughter Kathy believes that what didn’t kill her certainly made her stronger.
The Great Depression
But if surviving the influenza wasn't enough, the Great Depression could test anyone’s strength of will and character. Corti lived through the Depression era, and remembers how dark those days were.
“When the banks closed, you didn’t get a nickle,” recalls Corti. Her father lost the home and the business. “He was so broke that he couldn’t afford to buy the caskets” to continue his mortician business. “You can only bury so many people for free.”
Corti was married in 1927 to Leo Joseph Corti. The two of them were married for 70 years when Leo died, essentially enjoying a full lifetime together.
Leo lived with the family when the two were first married. After losing the family home, her father rented a home for $10 a month. “People did what they could to make money,” Corti noted. “Back then people bartered a lot, like going to shoe horses or take a bushel of corn to trade for a chicken. Her family and the community at large ate a lot of seafood to help get them through the Depression.”
When her daughter Marcella was born in 1931, Leo got what Corti called “the best job in the whole country, or so we thought, at $16 a week!” The family waited it out and did the best they could to get by, and eventually the Great Depression ended.
Corti and her husband lived in Royal Oak for years, but when Marcella was eight years old they moved to Miami to help take care of Leo’s mother, whose health was failing. “Marcella was eight at the time; now she’s turning 80 this year. Leo’s mother, Alice Corti, was getting older and sicker. We went there to take care of her, and we just stayed,” said Corti.
The family had experienced bitter winters in Maryland, so Miami was a nice change, recalled Corti. She described Miami as “life in the big city” compared to Royal Oak. “At that time there was nothing to Coral Gables, where we lived, but now it’s a big city too,” said Corti.
Marcella was born in 1931. Her younger brother Leo Jr. was born in 1933, and the youngest, Helen, was born in 1935. Helen died of bone cancer years ago, but Marcella and Leo are still very healthy to this day. Corti said that Marcella "deserves a lot of credit for taking such good care of me.”
The family’s first home in Miami was bought from Leo’s mother. They bought a 2BR, 1 Bath home with five lots for a mere $2,500, which shows how much inflation has affected home prices over the years.
It was during this time that Corti went to work for a pharmaceutical company named Crandon Wholesale Drugs, taking phone orders for drugs that were shipped and delivered to pharmacies, hospitals and clinics around Miami. There she worked for $35 per week, and twenty years later was making $118 per week when the company was sold. $118 per week was seen as good pay for a woman at that time. It was WWII and her son Leo was serving in the Coast Guard toward the end of her career.
After she left Crandon, Leo and Corti ran a couple of service stations, one Shell and the other Citgo. “But when he turned 65 years old, Leo pulled the doors down at the service station for the last time.”
The two of them moved to Franklin and owned a little farm out in Cartoogechaye. They raised cows but didn’t do any farming. When Leo got so sick that he couldn’t do it anymore, the cows had to go. But Corti remained strong enough to take care of him until he passed away several years later.
Corti said Franklin has grown a lot since they first moved here. “Now,” she said. “You can get lost.” It turns out that we had more in common than we knew: both her and her family and my family used to go to Sky City, which was located in the same location currently occupied by BigLots, to watch people come and go just for entertainment. "Have you ever heard of Sky City?," said Corti, thinking that was before my time. I surprised her by telling her about how my own father would take us out for ice cream or some snack and then park and "watch the doors open and close at Sky City," as he called it. Evidently Sky City was the most happening place in Franklin at the time.
Corti and her husband liked Franklin because “it was a nice, clean place to live,” said Corti. The two of them liked the mountain, country culture. It was the perfect place to slow down and retire and enjoy her large family, particularly her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren, many of whom also live in Franklin. Corti also said she really liked the bluegrass and country music from this area. She had a real thing for country singer Charlie Pride.
“Oh yeah, I liked Charlie Pride,” said Corti with that same mischievous smile and a flash in her eye.
Even after living for a century, it looks like Katherine Corti still has plenty of life in her yet. Happy Birthday, Mom-Mom!