|The Smith Family c. 1897, Mary in black.|
|Wilson County, Kansas|
She told stories. Their dog was bitten by a rattlesnake and her mother Louise gave it a basin of cool milk, which it drank down before crawling under the house. A week later, the dog emerged and survived. Or the time Laura used stove-blacking to spruce up her faded straw hat before she and Mary took the open buckboard to town. On the way a thunderstorm erupted and, with no shelter on the prairie, the rain washed the blacking down over Laura's face. Grandma laughed in its telling.
Whitman stayed at their boarding house in Fredonia while working at the glass factory. He turned18 toward the end of August, but Mary thought him older - and he thought her younger than she was. They talked a lot. She was stepping out with a young man named Rodgers and Whitman bragged of his girl back in Indiana. Weary of working at the glass factory, he left on 26 November, 1906, to join the army, but stole a kiss from her beforehand.
He wrote his first letter to her in December from Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, addressing her as his "dear friend," spelling her name "Marry," telling her that he was having fun and "playing tricks on someone all of the time." By the end of December he was out at Ft. Logan, Colorado. He writes on Dec. 23, " . . My folks did not [k]now what to think when they learned I had joined the army. And my wife didnt [sic] know what to do. She wants me to buy out and come home . . . Marry I think the army is a fine place for a[n] old fellow like me. My father told me when I wanted out he would buy me out, but I dont [sic] think I will ever want out. It is such a fine place to enjoy life . . ." At least Whitman had told Mary he was married, if that's what he meant by "wife" (in later letters he refers to Mary as "wife". Whatever she thought, it didn't deter her from writing to him with only a 3rd grade education, reared in a French-speaking household. At first he didn't save her letters. But on September 16, 1907, he writes: ". . . I wish it was time for me to be discharge so I could come home to you . . . Say, darling, do you think that you could learn to love me. I [k]now I could love you. I already think you are the only girl I ever saw that I really did love . . . I love you as I never loved before. . ." Mary must have written back, for on October 3rd, he writes, "My Dearest Beloved," and apologizes for taking so long to write, but they'd been out on a "scouting expedition" in the Rocky Mountains, were attacked by two bears, but killed them, and also killed cougars, wildcats, and lots of deer. And then he gets down to business. "But dear it isn't like being with my dear little girl Mary. Oh darling if we was [sic] only together tonight how we would make love. When you was [sic] speaking about the lady friend of mine there was one and a very dear one to[o] but poor thing dies [sic] some time ago and you are the only thing now that I think of. Oh dear if you loved me as I love you. Darling will you promise to be my wife when I am discharged . . . if I could think that I had a dear little girl waiting to come to my arms and I could call her mine. . . I know your folks have no objections of our suit for I am quite sure they are pleased with me. I know I am with them . . . "
Well, Mary was raised to have faith and she decided to have it in Whitman. The first letter I find from Mary that he'd saved is dated in August 27, 1908, nearly a year later. She calls him, "My dearest Whitman" and "my dearest lover." But what I want to glean from my grandmother's letters is what life was like for her in Kansas. ". . . I have been so busy this morning [at the boarding house] canning apples and tommatoes [sic] and fixin for company tomorrow. I have a cousin visiting us from Chickasha Okla. . . . It is so awful hot and dusty. . . we are having the hot[est] weather we ever had and it is dry, everything is burnt up. There will hardly be no corn, the men folks are busy cutting there[sic] corn for it is drying up." In November she writes: "We have  boarders now and Mama is not very well . . . and I am very busy . . . the glass factory is in full run, they are doing very well now, since they have rebuilt it. I wish it was so that you was [sic] here working like you did once before and that would be fine for you and me and we would not be so far away from one another . . . " On November 25, she writes: ". . Yes, dear one, I remember the night you stole a kiss from me, but deare [sic] I did not know that you loved me at that time. But my love was growing for you ever[y] day you was [sic] with me. But dear I thought there was one ahead of me, that all your love was for her . . . I still can see you the first day you came when Mr. Lentes (the glass factory owner or manager) brought you over, we all seemed to have fell [sic] in love with you for your sweet ways would make anyone love you. . ." When she signed off in her November 18th letter, she mentioned that she still had to piece together a quilt block for her church's Lady's Aid Society benefit. Years later she took up quilting again, and Grandpa made her a large quilting frame. I have two of her quilts. In January, 1909, she writes that they finally had enough snow to go sleigh riding, but that it did her no good because she never got to go. Running a boarding house was labor intensive
The panic of 1907 occurred during a lengthy economic contraction between May 1907 and June 1908. The interrelated contraction, bank panic and falling stock market resulted in significant economic disruption. Industrial production dropped further than after any previous bank run, while 1907 saw the second-highest volume of bankruptcies to that date. Production fell by 11%, imports by 26%, while unemployment rose to 8% from under 3%. Immigration dropped to 750,000 people in 1909, from 1.2 million two years earlier. Hardly any money was in circulation and people relied on barter. It touched Fredonia, too. In her January 27, 1909 letter, Mary writes: ". . And dearest Whitman you think you would like to work back at the glass factory. I think it would be hard for you . . . do you know that they dont [sic] make so much money as they use to. They have cut down . . . wages an awful lot and the Fredonia glass factory is the only one that is running in Kansas. [A]ll the other factorys [sic] have been closed ever since Christmas. It sure put lots of men on the [bum], it is something awful. The factory here is crowded with idle men that are watching for places. Sometime when one of the men gets sick [or] drunk, then there is another man right there to take [h]is place."
|A carnival glass vase a boarder made and presented to Mary's mother Louise|
|Old mill on Fall River, Wilson County, Kansas|
Sometime in the spring he'd written, asking if she still wanted to be married by a Catholic priest. She replied in early June that, yes, she intended that they be married by a priest. On June 13th she gets up her courage to suggest he become a Catholic. "My dear sweetheart how happy I am to know that your [sic] willing to be married by the priest, I know dear that you love me. Now dear one dont [sic] be offend[ed], but I want to ask you a question. Did it ever enter your mind once, that you would like to join the Catholic church, don't you think you would like to belong to the same church as I do. Now dear don't get angry toward me for asking you this. . ." You won't be surprised to learn that his mother, Nancy Raney, a Baptist, had a fit when Frank Raney later revealed he'd converted to Catholicism. '
On July 24, 1909, she writes that she'd been cooking for threshers that had come through. [Threshers, their machines pulled by horses began threshing in Texas and gradually worked their way up into the Dakotas.]
She was calling him her "dear little Frank" and "dear little soldier boy." He teased her, saying he might stay out west after he was discharged, and she doubled down on proclaiming her love for him. Her cousins bought land in Texas and were moving. Apparently her folks bought land there, also. "But I guess they won't go for awhile . . . " The land was about 40 miles from the Gulf. They never did move to Texas. His enlistment was finally nearing its end and he told her he'd come back to Kansas for Christmas. She was so excited, vowing to meet the train whatever time it came in, but suggesting the 4:45 would be most convenient. He asked her how old she was and on November 1, 1909, she said she was twenty-four, taking off a couple of years. "I hope the difference in our age[es] will not break our love from one another. I did think that you was older than twenty-one. I always thought that my [intended] husband was nearly as old as I was, but it makes no difference to me. I love you just the same and I hope you will have the same love for me as you always had." It had been three very long years for them.
November 8, 1909: "Well, dear one, I must tell you about our fishing fun we had yesterday afternoon. There is a lake about half a mile from home. Gusta, papa, my cousin, Laura, and I all went out a fishing. The boys took pitchforks and went out in water and got after the fish. It was more fun to see them catch those fish and they would throw them on the bank. Laura and I would put them in a sock [sack]. We caught about forty pounds in just a little wile [sic] . . ."
Her letters stop now. He did return to Fredonia, they had a proper courtship and were married in June 1910. They were so poor, there is no wedding photograph.
In my next blog I will tell you about their years together and apart.
If you aren't getting my blogs in your emails after signing up, perhaps it's best you also bookmark "Leaves on the Raney Tree" and visit it occasionally.