(To listen to the audio of this blog post, use the purple play button.)
It’s Thursday, July 22, 1920, at the home of Harriet “Hattie” Moore Jennings, 220 Sherman East Avenue, Hutchinson, Kansas. Living with widowed Hattie, 52, are three of her five children: Don, 31; Mack, 29; and Beulah, 20. Hattie’s still holding a $3,500 check when Beulah enters the room carrying a cup of coffee.
“Is it hot in here?” asked Hattie. Before Beulah could reply, Hattie placed the check on her desk and began unfastening the top button of her blouse.
Observing her mother’s flushed cheeks, Beulah inquired, “Mother, are you feeling well?”
“I’m fine,” she replied, “just part of the physical transition for women my age.
“I’ll never know if it was a premonition, but a few days prior to your father and sister’s fatal wreck in the heavy fog, Tom took out a policy with the Kansas Central Indemnity Company. On January 3, 1917, an insurance agent paid us $500 while I was still recovering in bed.
“It took the insurance company only three days to pay the policy. On the other hand, it will be about four years before the city completely settles its debt.”
“We were so concerned about you, Mom,” said Beulah. “Money didn’t matter to us. We were in shock from losing Mary and Dad, but we weren’t sure you were going to make it. You were in critical condition, paralyzed, with difficulty breathing due to a smashed lung.”
“I’ll never forgive myself for missing their double-funeral,” said Hattie as she dabbed a handkerchief on her forehead and upper lip to catch the perspiration.
“If you hadn’t stayed in bed, we could have lost you to pneumonia,” said Beulah. “Reverend Cole and the overflow crowd gave Dad and Mary an appropriate goodbye, with the six sheriffs carrying father’s coffin.”
“You know our damage suit wasn’t just about the money,” said Hattie. “It was always about holding the city accountable and saving future lives.”
“Mother, we’re glad you stood up to them with the help of Attorney Edward Foote, a former county attorney. The city figured they could get away with their dangerous shortcuts because they had City Attorney Walter Jones representing them.”
“Times were good for us,” said Hattie, “until that New Year’s Eve. That’s when our world came tumbling down. I worried about Tom’s safety during his law enforcement career. He was a deputy for the Anti-Horse Thief Association, undersheriff for Koon Beck, and elected twice as Reno County sheriff, but I never dreamed we’d be hurt together in a car wreck.”
Hattie felt tingling in her fingers, causing her to place her hands together in a praying pose as she slowly rubbed her fingertips together.
“Just closing my eyes can bring it all back, the fog, and our Ford car teetering for a second on the concrete culvert before it turned over and crashed on its top.”
“You don’t need to re-live the crash, Mom.”
“Remember when your dad was sheriff? We all helped in the jail. We were a team. As matron, I was paid a salary of $30, but we were also compensated for housing the prisoners. A big part of that included the cooking. Tom earned $250; Tom McGinn, our undersheriff, earned $90; and your brother, Deputy Don, was paid $30. Mack and Carl were paid deputies, too.”
“You had help, but you ran that kitchen,” reminded Beulah. “The prisoners loved you, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I wondered sometimes if they got locked up for the holidays in order to eat your delicious meals.”
“Until that foggy night, I felt like our family led a charmed life,” said Hattie. “Tom had been reelected and we figured we had another two years in the sheriff’s residence.
“We were all counting on it,” agreed Beulah. “Then our world changed. Within days of Dad’s death, Governor Capper appointed Scott Sprout, a Republican, to be the new sheriff. He’s done all right considering he didn’t have any law enforcement experience, like Tom.”
Hattie touched the top of her head and pushed down. She felt a headache beginning. “Do I blame the city? You bet. They knew the narrow Reformatory road was hazardous. They could have made it safer with a longer culvert and guardrails.”
“Their inaction was bad enough,” continued Hattie, “but the way they treated us and the users of their road before and after Tom and Mary’s untimely deaths, was cowardly. In an attempt to avoid any financial responsibility, they blamed Clay Township.”
“Your attorneys did well,” said Beulah. “It took the Supreme Court of Kansas to settle the argument that the culvert was in the city limits.”
“I thought this second check was going to be the final one,” said Hattie, “but eventually there will be another for the interest we would have earned had they paid it in one lump sum.”
“Beulah, do you remember your automobile accident about three months after our deadly crash?” asked Hattie, as she felt her heartbeat increase.
“Mother, I remember it, but it was just a bent fender.”
“Come over here and let me see your forehead,” ordered Hattie. “The flying windshield glass caused you to need three stitches. I remember the accident took place at Avenue A and Maple, where the street was torn up for the drainage ditch.”
“I’m healed Mom. That was a long time ago.”
“When you have children, you’ll learn how much you want them to be safe so they can grow up,” said Hattie.
“Mother, you’re getting ahead of yourself. I’m not married yet.”
Hattie felt light-headed and a bit dizzy. “I’m glad you’ve found a nice boy,” she said. “I’m not trying to hurry you and De Lloyd Misner to tie the rope.”
“I’m only 20,” said Beulah. “I enjoy my job as a telephone operator.”
“You’re still a young lady, it’s your bothers I’m worried about. They’re a few years older than when Tom and I married. Thomas was 27, I was 19.”
Beulah understood that sometimes her mother worried and just needed to talk.
“I hope you and the boys don’t think I need to have you taking care of me forever,” said Hattie as she crossed her arms and shivered.
Due to the chills, Hattie took a deep breath and refastened the top button of her moist blouse.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.