The Fletcher siblings seem to have the secret of a long, healthy life. If only they could tell us what it is.

Although one of them died this week, the three sisters and two brothers all reached well into their 90s. Pearl Faser, who was 94, died Wednesday following complications from a fall earlier this year. The rest remain in great physical shape.

Is it genetics?

A grandfather and some great uncles were long-lived, but the five siblings say their parents died in their 50s.

Clean living?

“I really don’t know,” said Tolley Fletcher, 95, who lives in Walker. “We were raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They didn’t believe in smoking and drinking.”

Nutrition?

“The only thing I can think of is as children we were raised on a farm,” said Curtis Fletcher, 91, of Baton Rouge. “We grew most of our own food. This was before all of this stuff they’re adding to food. Anything you buy now has some sort of artificial preservative in it.”

“We didn’t have cold drinks and things like that,” added Lessie Rice, 97, who lives in Baton Rouge.

Staying active?

Tolley Fletcher competed in Senior Olympics in retirement, but none of his siblings did.

Whatever it is, it’s working.

The oldest sibling, Audrey Lee Phinney, 98, lives in California. She worked in an aircraft assembly plant during World War II and later worked for Exxon. Curtis Fletcher became a petroleum engineer, and Rice worked at the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and the state's Department of Transportation. Tolley Fletcher served in the Navy in World War II and worked for Uniroyal for 25 years. Faser started the Poise 'N Ivy boutique in Baton Rouge in the 1960s, and it is still operating. Among them, they have 15 children.

All spent at least part of their childhoods in the Great Depression. After living in Independence and Denham Springs, the family moved in 1933 to join their grandfather, Charlie Blount, in Sherburne in southwestern Pointe Coupee Parish near the Atchafalaya River.

Now a ghost town, Sherburne had begun when timber companies came to harvest cypress in the late 1800s, and a thriving community grew up around the mill. In addition to logging, people farmed the rich soil, which is what had drawn Blount.

“It was so rich, corn would grow 10 feet high,” Rice said.

“Taller than that,” Tolley Fletcher said. “Uncle Louis would take corn stalks that were 13 feet tall to show somebody.”

While their father, Willie Fletcher, worked for $1 a day at the sawmill — “from can see till can’t see,” Curtis Fletcher said — their mother, Elizabeth “Molly” Fletcher, and the children worked as sharecroppers to bring in food for sustenance and extra income. They grew up raising cotton, peanuts, onions, sugar cane, corn and other crops, Tolley Fletcher said.

That created a lifestyle of physical activity and a diet that today would qualify as organic.

“We came up during a period where we lived there wasn’t anything like power tools,” Tolley Fletcher said “And there wasn’t any money. What we lived on was vegetables or meat we grew or else we hunted for. That included venison, rabbit or squirrel, and all of the common vegetables. If we didn’t grow it, we didn’t have it. It was that simple.

“Our mother along with us canned as many vegetables and fruits and nuts so we could have food during the winter and so forth. It was all still good, healthy food. There were not chemicals in it at all involved in it. Except for the cotton.”

One of Tolley Fletcher’s jobs was to spray arsenic powder on the cotton plants to combat boll weevils. He would sit on a rawhide saddle on the back of a mule that walked up and down the rows, using his arms to turn a crank that spread the pink arsenic powder in both directions. All of the powder didn’t stay on the cotton.

“I bet you couldn’t poison me with arsenic. I’d breathe that stuff all day and I’d come in and be pink from one end to the other,” he said. “I don’t think that was the healthy part. No one thought anything about it. It’s just what was done.”

Nothing seems to stop the Fletcher siblings.


Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.