Uncategorized, history, research, US history

The Old West’s Most Interesting Woman

People are sometimes surprised to find out that I never studied writing formally. Instead, I majored in history – both for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Why? Because history is nothing but stories. And you know the saying: truth is stranger than fiction.

So it is that while researching mountain men for one of my freelance projects I came upon the story of an amazing woman in the Old West: Stagecoach Mary. This 6 foot tall, 200-lb woman picked up and moved into Montana at the age of 52 years. There, she first worked for the Jesuits and next for a convent, where she chopped wood, dug holes, tended as many as 400 chickens, and grew vegetables for the nuns. Though she was devoted to the nuns and their Indian students at the mission, she was well known to have “the temperament of a grizzly bear.” She smoked, swore, and engaged in rounds of fisticuffs with her fellow hired hands. These behaviors got her banned from the mission in 1884 despite the protestations of the nuns.

mary_fields

Yes, indeed, Stagecoach Mary could kick ass and take names with the best of them. She smoked homemade cigars and was once attacked by wolves while alone on the prairie. I guess you know who got the bad end of that deal. After the nun debacle she tried to run a couple of restaurants, but because she kept giving meals to the down and out, she couldn’t make a go of it. In 1895, at the age of 63, she got a job delivering mail for the post office. As a job interview she and a dozen young cowboys had to hitch a team of six horses to a stagecoach as quickly as possible. She won to become the second woman – and the first black person – to manage a mail route. For eight years she carried mail back and forth to Montana pioneers. With the help of her mule, Moses, she braved icy blizzards and heat waves in the remote land.

Stagecoach Mary, also known as Black Mary, was christened Mary Fields when she was born into slavery in 1832, in Hickman County, Tennessee. After the Civil War guaranteed her freedom, she worked for a time as a chambermaid on a steamboat named the Robert E. Lee.  She witnessed the steamer’s race against Steamboat Bill’s Natchez in 1870. During the race, the men tossed anything they could get their hands on into the boiler – from barrels of resin to slabs of ham and bacon. Other men sat on the relief valves in order to increase the steam pressure.

At 71, she gave up her postal route to run a laundry – and famously punched out a customer who hadn’t paid up the $2 he owed her. Reportedly, she spent more time drinking whiskey and smoking cigars than washing clothes. So she took up babysitting the local kids. One of those local kids was actor Gary Cooper, who visited her hometown of Cascade, Montana from nearby Dearborn. He wrote a story about her for Ebony magazine in 1959.

baseball1

The only black resident of Cascade, she had plenty of friends in the townfolk. One was Kirk Huntley, who, when he sold his hotel in 1910, stipulated that she was to be offered all the meals she wanted free of charge. Her house burned down in 1912 and the town pitched in to build her a new one. She was also a baseball fan who sponsored the Cascade baseball team and made sure that each player had buttonhole bouquets of flowers from her garden.

At the age of 82 she grew ill, and stole away to die in the tall grass near her home. But children who she had babysat found her and she was spirited off to the hospital in Great Falls, where she died a few days later, in 1914.

dogs, history, research, Uncategorized, US history, writing

Animals in History, Oh My!

If I had unlimited time, I would probably spend several hours a day, every day, learning Latin and perusing old newspaper articles. Alas, I do not have unlimited time, but in my research for various fiction and nonfiction projects I do come across some interesting bits now and again. You may recall my rampaging monkey post. This is another post in the same vein.

First we will start with the wild. Bears! I do believe this has the makings of an American nursery tale.

bears history
Thursday, November 2, 1894. Sturgeon Bay, WI, Vol XXII, The Democrat.

Goodness gracious, great balls of fire! Hyenas can be pretty dangerous, too.

Chicago cemeteries hyena

Dogs in danger always pulls at the heartstrings! It seems that Jack London’s Call of the Wild may have inspired some unsavory people:

Dog slavers
June 18, 1910, v. 26 n.25, Sausalito News.

And last, but not least, apparently dogs have been accompanying folks on car rides for quite some time.

dog automobile
March 19, 1905, Omaha Daily Bee.

You will notice that these articles are from around the turn of the 20th century. That’s the setting of my latest project, a quirky romance between a dog musher/postman and a bicycle-riding pastor in 1911 Alaska. Check out my newsletter to keep apprised of its progress and to read free flash fiction while you are at it.

history, research, travel, Uncategorized, US history

1920’s Postcard America

My mom passed away last February, old and full of years, as the Bible says. With her passed a bygone era, at least for me: farm life in rural Pennsylvania. From a family of Mennonites, frugality, simplicity, and family were the paramount values. She carried these with her whole life, as well as other things.

Mainly, junk.

Yes, I said it. I love my mother dearly (I can’t use the past tense because I still love her even though she’s gone) but she did tend to keep things way too long. Going through her stuff is a lengthy process that involves much head-shaking. Why did you keep this 1980’s era badge from when you worked in a convenience store, mom? Why did you keep every piece of crappy jewelry I had as a teenager – even when it was broken or missing pieces (one earring)? Just … why?

I think the answer lies in the “frugality” I mentioned above. Born in the late ’30s, she came into an America still in the grips of the Great Depression, when jobs were as scarce as consumer goods. Her frugality would be considered poverty today. And as anyone who has struggled with it knows, it leaves scars. And also thrifty habits. Believe me, I am grateful for learning how to get a dollar’s worth at the store. I’m also grateful for the memories of button boxes, homemade clothes, and the do-it-yourself ethos. Reusing the old green toilet cover as landscaping did seem to be taking it a bit too far, though.

Anyhow, along with the junk she also kept lots and lots of pictures, slides, and cards. I came across these lovely 1920s postcards during my search, some which were sent by my grandfather, who passed away in the ’70s. We live in a much different world today when it comes to travel. I’ve crisscrossed the country several times and flown all over the world. But up until the interstate system came into being in 1956 (and not completed for 35 years) it was a royal pain to go any distance. And of course the vehicles were not so comfortable and quick-moving. You can get a good sense of the difficulties and challenges involved in Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck’s cross-country travel memoir.

It was a real thrill to go somewhere different. Like Virginia:

virginia

Where you could see all manner of things, which fold out accordion-style, like this image of Monticello:

monticello

Or the Hudson River:

hudson-river

Photos within this package (look close for the old-timey cars):

hudsonriver2

And, a world away from small-town Pennsylvania, Chicago:

chicago

So many sights to see, there! Why, sailboats, even:

chicago2There’s more, but these are the most fascinating to me, history-lover that I am. My latest fiction project takes place in 1911 America, so finding these was particularly relevant.

Thanks, mom.