[Editor’s note: The following feature discusses 11 noted women in Franklin County’s history as The Herald marks national Women in History Month in March. It is not intended as an all-inclusive list of the women who have helped shape the county’s history through the decades, but rather a representation of the contributions of women in the community. The women selected for this feature were chosen from a list of suggested names supplied by the Franklin County Historical Society. (Reporting by Doug Carder, Herald Senior Writer)]
Eleanor Meeker’s daily chores mirrored that of other pioneer women.
She was responsible for raising children, cooking, cleaning, sewing, baking, gardening and other domestic duties, John Mark Lambertson, former Franklin County Historical Society director, wrote.
But that’s where the similarities ended.
Meeker and her husband, the Rev. Jotham Meeker, were missionaries who arrived in the area in 1837 to establish the Ottawa Mission and work with the Ottawa tribe. In addition to her own chores, Eleanor Meeker taught Indian women new methods of cooking, sewing and knitting, made medicines and helped nurse the ill, according to historical society archives.
Local historians have speculated that Meeker, who was born Eleanor Richardson in 1810 in Ohio, perhaps was the first white woman to settle in present-day Franklin County, according to the historical society’s archives. After arriving to establish the mission, Meeker went a year without seeing another white woman, Lambertson wrote in his article.
The women of the Ottawa tribe often sought her counsel, sometimes on a daily basis, one observer from that time period wrote, according to the archives.
“She fluently speaks the Ottawa language ... her usefulness is the greater for this acquirement,” the observer said.
Eleanor Meeker helped her husband chase off whiskey peddlers, fought prairie fires, endured harsh winters and droughts, including one summer when the horseflies were so thick, travel could only be accomplished at night.
The primitive conditions took a toll on the Meekers. Records show Eleanor Meeker died at 46 — a year after her husband — and was buried next to his grave in the Ottawa Mission Cemetery in 1856.
MARY WARD SMITH
While Meeker embodied the missionary way of life, Mary Ward had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. She became the Ottawa settlement’s first school teacher at the tender age of 13 in the late 1850s. Ottawa would not incorporate as a city until 1864.
Several years later, she married Horace J. Smith, a Civil War veteran who was one of the founders of First National Bank in Ottawa, and the couple soon had their first child, Minnie Evelyn, in 1868.
After her husband died, Mary Ward Smith moved to Denver in 1907, then to Boston and Wisconsin before settling in California. She died in 1931 in Santa Monica, Calif., at 88.
THEODORA ROBINSON JENNESS
At the same time newlyweds Horace and Mary Ward Smith were starting their family in Ottawa, Theodora Robinson was lured to the newly minted community in 1867 by the prospect of getting a job as a writer for the newspaper.
She married newspaperman and Civil War veteran Ben Jenness. During her first year in Ottawa, Jenness began sending stories to “Eastern publications,” according to historical society archives, and became a frequent writer for “Our Young Folks,” and “The Youth’s Companion,” a popular family magazine, according to historic records. She would go on to write several books, and local historians credit Jenness with being Franklin County’s first published female author.
In 1882, Jenness founded the Ottawa M.P.M. Club, which stood for Monday Afternoon, a literary group for women.
Though she enjoyed literary success, archives indicate her personal life spiraled out of control. Her husband became addicted to alcohol and morphine and eventually abandoned her and their young family, according to archives.
Jenness moved in 1920 to Brooklyn, N.Y., to live with daughter. She died in Brooklyn in 1935.
Five years after Jenness established her literary group, young widow Etta Killmer, an author in her own right, moved from Illinois to Ottawa in 1887, where she married barrel maker Matthew Semple.
In her 27 years in Ottawa, Etta Semple became known as an editor, novelist, feminist, political candidate, proponent of free thought and free love, atheist and all-around gadfly, according to historical society archives.
Also a doctor of osteopathy, Semple’s “The Natural Cure Sanitarium,” known for a time simply as “the hospital,” was a fixture in Ottawa for 20 years where “people flocked because of her curative powers,” according to the archives. At the 31-room, three-story house near the Marais des Cygnes River, she was devoted to helping the poor and social outcasts and her “power to heal the sick and lame at the osteopathic hospital she operated was, in itself, a feat worth remembering,” according to historic accounts.
Founder of the Kansas Freethought Association, Semple was quoted as saying Freethought — the principle of human beings having the right to do as they pleased as long as they didn’t infringe on others’ rights — “strives to do away with selfishness, envy, malice, scandal, gossip, greed, jealousy and backbiting.”
Semple wrote two books, “The Strike” and “Society,” which focused on the needs of working men and women.
Lambertson, former historical society director, wrote of Semple: “her intellectual abilities were formidable. She could write and debate with stinging clarity and forcefulness. She also was an avid student of the Bible, knew it more thoroughly than some ministers, and believed that it degraded women.”
Semple’s outspoken philosophies and free lifestyle riled some Ottawa residents. An old woman was murdered in her bed one night at the sanitarium, and local police officials at the time thought the assassin had meant to kill Semple but got the wrong bed.
Semple died in 1914 at age 59. Her funeral and burial ceremonies were reported to be the largest ever to take place in Ottawa at the time.
While Semple had a more visible influence, Carrie Burns quietly went about gaining the respect of the Ottawa community near the turn of the century with her skills as a school teacher. Beginning in the Hawthorne School in 1895, Burns was a teacher in the Ottawa school district until her death from illness at age 65 in 1937.
A versatile educator, Burns taught in the district’s grade schools for a number of years, as well as teaching history, psychology, mathematics, German and civics at the high school. Hundreds of students, parents and community members attended her funeral, according to news accounts.
One student in her history class at the high school said Burns “always had a really loud voice. There was never any fooling around, and she expected great things from everyone in her class,” according to archives.
Also around the turn of the century, an Ottawa photographer was busy leaving a lasting image on the community through her work.
Maude Frink purchased William H. “Dad” Martin’s photography studio in 1909 in Ottawa after working several years as his assistant.
A photo Frink took of her niece won top honors in the Kansas Association of Photographers competition in 1911. Later that year, four of Frink’s photographs were selected for an exhibit at the National Association of Photographers convention in St. Paul, Minn., according to historical society archives.
Frink, who originally was from Brown County before moving to Ottawa, gained national acclaim for her photography, with most of her award-winning work focused on the photography of children, according to archives. She often used her nieces, Carolyn and Elizabeth Converse of Wellsville, as models for her photography portraits.
Elizabeth Converse would grow up to be known to the world as “Grandma” Layton.
ELIZABETH ‘GRANDMA’ LAYTON
Elizabeth “Grandma” Layton, a Wellsville native who took up drawing at age 68 in 1977, found that drawing cured her 35-year bout with depression, according to Herald archives and other news accounts.
Her work is nationally known and has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
A 1992 Wichita Eagle review of Layton’s display at the Smithsonian said, “Layton’s work is notable for its link to the underdog, the powerless, the oppressed. At once gentle and biting, her wobbly self-portraits give perspective on such topics as aging, AIDS, racism, hunger and censorship.”
The Elizabeth Layton Center for Hope and Guidance, 2537 Eisenhower Road, Ottawa, is named in her honor.
“Elizabeth Layton was a woman who touched and enriched many people’s lives through her art,” the biography on the center’s website said. “What distinguishes Elizabeth Layton’s drawings from others is their breadth, their freshness and their expression of hope. Each drawing challenges us to walk in the shoes of the less fortunate. Each drawing urges us to work not just for a kinder and gentler nation but for a kinder and gentler self. She took one contour drawing art class at the age of 68 while fighting a 35-year depression. By taking that art class she cured her depression and changed the lives of many.”
Other reviews of her work were equally favorable.
“She is the van Gogh of contour drawing,” a Washington Times reviewer wrote.
“I am tempted to call Layton a genius,” a New York Magazine writer said.
The Wichita Eagle article said a Smithsonian patron named Anne Marie remarked of the exhibit: “Elizabeth, I wept when I looked at some of your drawings, and laughed with the rest. You are a candle to the world.”
Layton’s candle blew out in 1993, but her legacy lives on through her art.
Ottawan Kay Shaughnessy’s gift as a physical therapist also will live on as long as there are people around to read the awarding-winning book, “Fortunate Son.”
Shaughnessy graduated from Ottawa High School in 1954 and earned a degree in physical therapy from the University of Kansas before entering the U.S. Navy in 1963, where she would rise to the rank of captain.
While in the Navy, Shaughnessy served as head of physical therapy departments at several naval hospitals around the country and in Japan, according to Herald archives.
In the late 1960s then Commander (Lt.) Shaughnessy served as physical therapist for Lewis B. Puller Jr., a U.S. Marine who lost both of his legs and parts of both hands during the Vietnam War. She would be featured in a key role in Puller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Fortunate Son.”
“Her grip on my arm was viselike,” Puller wrote of Shaughnessy, “and in the next hour, my suspicions were confirmed that this Irish firebrand was going to whip me into shape.”
Shaughnessy, who retired from the U.S. Navy in 1987, is a 1997 OHS Wall of Honor inductee.
“Captain Shaughnessy was selected as an Outstanding Young Woman of America in 1968,” her bio on the Wall of Honor reads. “She received the Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal and many other awards.”
ALICE JOY LEWIS
While Shaughnessy spent nearly two years as the therapist for Puller and as many as 170 other amputees at any one time in the late 1960s, another woman was shaping the musical talents of hundreds of students.
Accomplished violinist Alice Joy Lewis founded Ottawa Suzuki Strings in 1966 and has received national acclaim for her string instrument teaching excellence.
In 2008, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kansas Chapter of the American String Teachers’ Association, and in 1996 she was presented with the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Suzuki Association of the Americas.
Lewis, considered one of the leading teachers of the Suzuki method in the country, studied with its founder, Shinichi Suzuki, in Japan in 1974 and 1979, according to historical society archives.
The Suzuki method of instruction teaches students to learn to play by tone first, notes second, according to archives.
“For Suzuki, if a child could vocalize 3,000 words by age 3 and develop the manual dexterity to master chopsticks, surely that child could play a stringed instrument,” according to a 2000 article in the Kansas City Star. “That belief — essentially common sense that currently has 300,000 children in 34 countries learning to play by tone first, notes second — has turned what’s now known as the Carnegie Cultural Center [on South Main Street in Ottawa] into a mecca for children and their parents.”
The credit for bringing this love of music to Ottawa lies with Lewis, patrons and other local residents said, according to news accounts.
One parent quoted in the Star article characterized Lewis as a woman with “the patience of a saint, the kindness of a grandmother and the sternness of a mother.”
Lewis said students, by mastering classic pieces that to most seem an impossibility, learn self-esteem, something especially critical in the preteen and teenage years, according to the article.
Ottawa Suzuki Strings continues each summer at the cultural center.
Another woman interested in promoting culture and commerce in Ottawa was the civic-minded Dorothy Nichols.
Born in Ottawa in 1923, the late Nichols affected change throughout her lifetime in the Ottawa community as a downtown business owner, a member of various boards, a politician and “something of a silent crusader for women in Franklin County in a time when women’s rights still were not at the forefront of people’s minds,” according to Herald archives.
Nichols served on the Ottawa City Commission from 1977 to 1981 and was mayor from 1978 to 1979. She served many years as a board member of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce, including a stint as its president in 1976 and 1977.
In the 1980s, Nichols’ political ambitions branched out to the state level. Nichols, then 58, was the first woman to be elected to the Kansas House of Representatives from Franklin County in 1981. She served in the Kansas House until 1986, according to archives.
In a 2013 Herald article, Nichols’ daughters described their mother’s tenacity, which they said was uncommon for women of the day.
Chris Campbell relayed that tenacity through a story about her mother that took place during an Elected Republican Women Officials luncheon in 1984 at the White House. As then-President Ronald Reagan was making his rounds, shaking hands with women, Nichols had a plan to get the commander in-chief’s attention, Campbell said in the article.
“Mother used to say most people when they would meet the president, would just be kind of flustered,” Campbell said. “She had her business card in her hand when she went to meet him and she shook hands with him and said, ‘I’m Rep. Dorothy Nichols from Ottawa, Kan. If you ever need anything, call me.’”
Reagan then put the card in his pocket, Campbell said.
Nichols died in 2004. Shortly after her death, the Kansas House issued a resolution in memory of her service to her community and state.
Marguerite Gibson also has been known for her service and generosity to the Ottawa community through her philanthropic and volunteer efforts.
Raymond and Marguerite Gibson, who owned and operated Bing-Go Dog Food Company in Ottawa for 40 years, were actively involved in Ransom Memorial Hospital, 1301 S. Main St., Ottawa, and the community.
Raymond was a member of the board of trustees from 1979 through 1983, while Marguerite is a longtime hospital volunteer, including helping the hospital auxiliary’s gift shop as a buyer in the 1980s, according to Herald archives.
Marguerite donated $880,000 toward the hospital’s recently completed renovation project. The gift — in honor of Marguerite and her late husband who died in 2000 — allowed hospital officials to nearly double the project to include improvements to the emergency room and other areas that otherwise would have been postponed, according to Herald archives. Raymond had a heart bypass surgery at the hospital in 1995, and that’s when the idea of making a financial donation to the hospital first surfaced, according to Herald archives.
“My only regret is he didn’t live to see this,” Gibson told the Herald of the hospital renovations.
Gibson’s generosity has extended to other community projects, most notably of late was her $1 million donation toward facility enhancements underway on the Ottawa University campus, 1001 S. Cedar St., Ottawa.
The Gibson Student Center currently under construction on the campus is named in Marguerite and Raymond Gibson’s honor.
HAND THAT ROCKS
Quoting the saying, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” Deb Barker, Franklin County Historical Society director, said the women featured “may not have ruled the world, but they were all enormously hard working women who have made a difference in the community.”
And, in some cases, the state, the country and the world.