By Rebecca Carr
Photograph by Josh Norris
In a faded black and white photograph, three Hambright sisters smile broadly in that impish, toddler sort of way, sitting in a row with their summer bare feet waving in the air. One wears a large bow, another a tall bonnet.
The first three of eight children born to a farmer in rural Cherokee County, S.C., they attended a one-room school founded by their mother and went to the Antioch Baptist Church each Sunday by horse and buggy.
Flash forward a century, past 17 presidential administrations, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Hiroshima, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the invention of the radio, TV, airplanes and rocket ships that reached the moon, past the internet, cell phones, 9/11 terrorist attacks to the Spartanburg, S.C., living room of State Representative Eddie Tallon and his wife, Linda. At 101, Linda’s mother, Louise Roberts, is the oldest of the sisters, followed by Aileen Cantrell of Kennesaw, Ga., who just turned 100, and Bess Phifer, of Kings Mountain, N.C., who will be just one year shy of the 100 mark when she turns 99 come October.
The three sisters in that black and white photograph have grayish white hair now swept up in tidy hairdos. They all wear glasses and smart pastel-colored knit suits with fashionable necklaces. Their skin, like so many Southern women of a certain age, is creamy smooth with the slightest of wrinkles. The trio has defeated extraordinary odds by reaching 100. It’s true that the centenarian population has jumped nearly 139 percent over the past three decades, reaching 76,974 in 2015, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau. But centenarians are still a rare breed. They make up a tiny sliver of the overall population — just 2.4 centenarians per 10,000 people.
Rarer still is for one family to have three sisters cross that hurdle.
“It is extremely rare for to be a centenarian, let alone find three from one family,” said Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center in Los Angeles and author of Two Weeks to a Younger Brain.
The secret of the Hambright sisters? “Genes, good food and a balanced diet,” said Louise, who calls herself “the bossy one” as the oldest of the eight children. “Our mother fed us on locally grown food, and it was always a balanced diet.”
“And plenty of exercise,” piped in Bess, recalling how they would all work the cotton fields and how Aileen could pull in 250 pounds of cotton in one day. The sisters worked the fields well into college, helping the family farm succeed against many challenges. The house they grew up in the Antioch Community is still in the family — their younger sister, Sue Drye, lives there at a youthful 85.
Like many bands of sisters, there is a certain kind of oneness that transcends everything else. They have watched each other grow into the women they are, having raised 11 children near each other and watched with pride as their 14 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren arrived. They have also buried their parents and husbands together. They return to their family homestead multiple times each year, especially during the holidays, to keep their connections alive and to remember their parents. They finish each other’s stories with the mental clarity of someone in their 70s. With regular exercise and the help of their children, they live independently or with their children rather than a nursing home or assisted care facility.
“As a family, they were very godly people and wanted to do the right thing by their children and the community,” Louise’s daughter, Linda, said. “Back then, their lives were the family, community and church. As we grew up, we all had a real strong sense of caring for others.”
“It is an honor to have our mother in our home,” Linda said. “She has added so much to my children. What they have that many don’t have today is that connection with their family — their parents and grandparents. Today that is so foreign to so many people. I don’t care how educated you are, the strength of the family unit is critical.”
Life was different when the sisters were growing up — no cell phones or flashy advertising campaigns making kids think that they needed the latest designer jeans and new sports shoes every season.
“We got shoes in the fall and saved our shoe boxes to leave out for Christmas morning,” Louise said. “One pair of shoes. That was it.”
One pair of shoes for the entire year. What if their foot grew?
“I guess we got a toe ache,” quipped Louise. “We had quite a few toe aches before the new ones arrived.”
On Christmas morning, Aileen remembers that the shoe boxes would contain a little candy, an orange and sometimes a doll. “We didn’t expect much. We didn’t need much. We had each other,” Louise said.
“We can’t understand how we survived,” laughed Bess. “This is a different day.”
Eight children. Eight sets of clothes to stitch by hand. Twenty-four meals to cook per day, not including the adults. Their mother was always busy. The sisters remember how she taught them to be resourceful and find a way out of emergencies. Aileen recalls riding a horse to water in a nearby creek and leading another horse behind. When she got to the creek, her horse spooked, and she was able to slide off just before the horse rolled in the water with her mounted. Her mother had prepared her well on how to handle that one. Bess recalls a wind so strong that it slammed her to the ground. Her mother’s strong voice came to her, instructing her to lie still until the storm passed rather than fight it.
Their mother founded the local school and made it possible to educate hundreds of children by inviting the teacher to live in their home, Louise said. She taught Sunday school every week for 65 years, imprinting a message about the importance of faith on the whole family that carries on today. The school was a one-teacher, one-room school house, but it was a school that prepared them for college, careers and family.
After attending business school in Charlotte, N.C., Aileen and her husband, A.D., had two children. They owned the Western Auto store in Davidson, and they were the Western Union representatives for the area.
The sisters are descendants of Lt. Col. Frederick Hambright, who fought at the Battle of Kings Mountain during the American Revolution. And the later wars touched their families. Aileen’s son, Al, was shot down twice in Army helicopters during the Vietnam War.
Bess went to the Asheville Teacher’s College and taught sixth grade for five years before working as a Red Cross field assistant in the Pacific Islands during World War II. She worked in a recreational camp for soldiers taking leave from the battlefield. They would get 500 men for five days at a time at the camp. Her job was to entertain them and try to revive their spirits as much as their wounds.
“When I got to the islands, they had all been destroyed, but the war was going on and everyone was busy with war, so we just had to do what we could do,” Bess said. The toughest part came when the American prisoners of war returned through the camp — gaunt, thin and beaten. “They did not look human,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep if I had the time to sleep after seeing that.” Bess was on board the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan formally surrendered. She returned home and married Marriott Phifer, an Army master sergeant she had dated during the war when she was stationed at the rest camp in Hilo and he was in Honolulu. They courted on Waikiki Beach and went on to Guam. The couple returned to North Carolina and had four children. He went into the hardware business, and she taught sixth grade until she was 72.
Louise graduated from Blacksburg High School and then went to work in her uncle’s grocery store in Kings Mountain. That was where she met Gene Roberts. The story is that he saw her in the grocery store and then again as she walked out of church. They were together from that moment on and had five children together. “It was happy ever after,” she said, smiling.
Regrets in life?
“I think you always have some regrets, but I did just about everything, and I don’t think I missed a beat,” said Louise, holding a photograph of herself waving from a limo on her first trip to New York City when she turned 90. She waved like Queen Elizabeth because the people on the street thought she was a movie star.
“Everyone thinks she is a star,” said Rep. Tallon.
The sisters, he said, are special not just because they are 100, but because of their “great sense of humor. They love being alive. It’s not a ‘woe is me’ sort of thing. They don’t just sit home. They are very active and love to laugh.” E