Diphtheria, the O’Marra Family, and the Rest of the Story

In 2011, I wrote about the O’Marra family, who lost eight of their nine children when a particularly awful strain of “black” diphtheria hit their household in 1903. Their story touched my heart, and it turns out that it touched the hearts of a lot of readers out there, too. Of all of the stories and places I’ve shared, the O’Marra’s story is the most read, most shared, and most discussed.

But many of us wanted to know what happened afterward. What happened after the diphtheria outbreak and the newspaper stories? What happened to the O’Marra family? What happened to Lizzie, once the middle child in a family of nine, and now the only remaining child?

Margaret O’Marra Miller, a descendant of the O’Marra family, reached out to me to tell me more about her family and offer some insight into the rest of their story.

Lizzie wasn’t an only child for long.

Lizzie and her baby brother, John.

Lizzie and her baby brother, John.

Nearly 25 years after the birth of their oldest child, James and Anna O’Marra became parents for the tenth time. John was born in 1906 and would never know eight of his nine siblings. But John would grow up to be healthy and happy and live the life of a farmer. He married and became the father of three children, including Margaret Miller, who told me that John’s lineage now includes 54 descendants. He died in 2000, just a few months shy of his 94th birthday.

Nearly fourteen years older than her baby brother, Lizzie left the family farm not long after John was born.

“Lizzie was a happy-go-lucky person,” Miller told me in an interview last year. Her life wasn’t always easy–Lizzie married, had two children who died young, then divorced. But she kept moving on with her life, leaving the farm to work at a restaurant in Richmond, Kansas, and then a motel in Louisburg, Kansas. She died in 1962 from complications during surgery to remove colon cancer. Yet, despite the loss and hardships, Miller said that Lizzie had a good life and made the most of it.

James and Ruth Ann (Anna) O'Marra.

James and Ruth Ann (Anna) O’Marra.

What happened to James and Anna, the parents who lost almost everyone dear to them?

Born in Ireland in 1855, James came to Kansas by way of Boston and Drexel, Mo. He settled in the Anderson County community of Emerald in 1882, where he met and married Ruth Ann Gillespie, who had been living in Westphalia, Kansas. They moved to Hartford in 1884 with their first-born son, William. William was 21 when he and seven of his siblings died of diphtheria in 1903.

“Grandma never complained,” Miller said. It would have been easy to feel sorry for herself, but she didn’t, and she and her husband both found strength in their faith. After her family’s plight, however, she exhibited a an extraordinary level of compassion for those in need, and she regularly took in those who were too sick to look after themselves.

James and Anna lived in their old house right up until the end, living a hardworking, old-fashioned life. James died in 1938. Miller said that her grandmother never had electricity installed in “the big house,” as the old house was known, and used candles for light right up until her death in 1954, at the age of 92.

I think the reason the O’Marra family’s story resonates so much with modern readers is that we understand theirs was not an isolated tragedy. Somewhere in our family lines, our ancestors all faced this kind of loss to some degree. Children died of so many diseases that we can either prevent or treat today. We exist because those who survived managed to keep moving forward. Many of our great-great-great-greats buried their children. Many of them found the strength to move on.

In just a few days, people all over the globe will be watching the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which commemorates the attempt to deliver serum from Anchorage to Nome during a 1925 outbreak of diphtheria that threatened the lives of many Native Alaskan children. Many of those dog sled race watchers will find their way to the O’Marra family’s story when they search for information on diphtheria. Then they will understand why those 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs would work so hard to sled the 674 miles of Iditadrod trail,

The Potawatomi Trail of Death and St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park

On one of our weekend drives to nowhere in particular, Jim and I found ourselves heading east on K-68 and circling the roundabout to exit onto the Old KC Road when we encountered a sign.

Potawatomi Trail of Death directional road sign.

These brown “Potawatomi Trail of Death” signs point the way.

We definitely would have remembered if we had previously encountered signs marked “Trail of Death.” Curious, we turned our destinationless drive into a quest to follow the signs.

We found ourselves at a pretty little green square in Paola, where, serendipitously, a staff member from the Miami County Historical Society happened to be enjoying the early evening sun. She outlined the story of the Potawatomi and how they ended up in Kansas.

Like many Native Americans in the 19th century, the Potawatomi held lands that encroaching settlers wanted. In 1838, two years after signing a treaty that gave away all of their land for $8,000 in exchange for transportation to their new lands, 660 Potawatomi men, women and children were forced to leave their homeland. Mostly on foot, the Potawatomi marched across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri before reaching Kansas, a trip that would take two months. They lacked proper nourishment and shelter, and despite being tended to by a Jesuit priest named Benjamin Petit, many became ill and died.

When they arrived at the Sugar Creek Mission, they discovered that no houses had been built for them. It was November in Kansas, and the Potawatomi were forced to shelter they best they could along the creek banks.

Fr. Petit became very ill and ultimately died February 10, 1839 after returning to St. Louis.

“You should follow the signs to the park,” the woman from the historical society told us. “The memorial park is worth seeing.”

***

Generally speaking, the signs were easy to follow. They are, however, spaced just far enough apart that you start to worry you missed an important turn somewhere before the next sign appears to reassure you. Travel tip: If you happen to be using the GPS on your cellphone and your cell service is through Sprint, Virgin Mobile, or Verizon, be warned: you WILL lose your signal. Because of this lost signal, I couldn’t get this handy map to work for most of our trip. Also important to note: we picked up the trail near Paola, but the trail begins in Indiana.

We traveled through Osawatomie, which is a historic town that deserves attention all on its own and merits a return trip. A charming bridge takes you across Pottawatomie Creek on the south end of town.

Osawatomie bridge

The bridge at the southern end of Osawatomie.

As you approach the tiny town of Beagle, the lack of signage will sorely tempt you to continue following the smooth and silky K-7 Highway instead of continuing south on Plum Creek Road. DON’T DO IT. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself having this conversation:

Diana: Shouldn’t we go straight? There’s no sign that says to turn.
Jim: There’s no sign that says to get off of the main highway, so we should keep following K-7.

Ten minutes later…

Diana: Have you seen any signs?

Ten minutes after that…

Jim: I think maybe we should have gone straight back there.
Diana: I think you might be right.

After Beagle, the signs reappear and and reassure you that you’re on the right path and will take you into Parker before turning south again.

If you’re a taphophile, Goodrich Cemetery is a short detour off the marked path and worth the visit. The cemetery includes at least one CSA Civil War veteran and one likely War of 1812 veteran, as well as many great examples of Victorian hand art. We found it by accident when the Trail of Death road, 1077, was closed for repairs, and we had to detour. Take a left at W 1800 Rd and a right onto Evangeline and you’ll find it. Travel tip: this area is pretty isolated and the west end of the cemetery leads to a woodsy creek area.

At a crook in the road, you’ll turn onto W 1525 Rd. As you grind down the gravel, you’ll be startled by a tiny cemetery on the southeast corner of Flint Rd and W 1525 Rd. There are only three headstones, but they’re worth examining.

Sharp-Morrison Cemetery.

The Sharp-Morrison Cemetery on W 1525 Rd in Linn County, Kansas.

Another mile or so east, and you’ll see the entrance to St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park, which stands on the land once occupied by the Sugar Creek Mission.

Entrance

St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park.

Jim and I were gobsmacked by this park.

Owned by the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, this park honors the Native American, Jesuit, and archeological history of the land. The foundations and locations of buildings are carefully marked with informative signs. The park’s sainted namesake was once a nun serving the Potawatomi community at this site.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha memorial

Beautiful memorials and art honor both the Jesuit and Native American men and women who once lived here. This memorial honors Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, an Indian princess who was canonized in 2012.

A nature trail winds through the eastern side of the park. A fabulous discovery: the only known portion of the original Fort Scott and California Road is preserved in this hiking trail. Travel tip: When we arrived at this park last summer, we discovered the words “Beware of Ticks” scrawled on a paper plate and nailed Roanoke-style to the meeting hall wall, so we stayed away from the hiking trail that day. Winter or early spring might be a better time to explore the area under the canopy of trees.

Fort Scott and California Road sign

This sign marks the post of the only remaining fragment of the original Fort Scott and California Road.

I was most moved by the burial ground. Each of the crosses lists the names of the more than 600 Potawatomi men, women, and children who died at Sugar Creek.

Memorial crosses

Memorial crosses mark the area where more than 600 Potawatomi are buried.

Memorial Cross, list of names, detail

The names of every man, woman, and child are listed on the memorial crosses.

As we followed the path back to the entrance of the park, we found two more surprises. The first was an archeological site marking what might be a rock pit originally constructed by the Kanza Indians.

Possible Kanza Indian archeological site

This rock pit may have been constructed by the Kanza Indians.

The second was the text of the diary of Jesse C. Douglas, enrolling agent, who documented the struggles of the Potawatomi on their long journey to Kansas.

Trail Journal Display

Jesse Douglas’s trail journal is preserved in a series of panels at the park.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, has manged to create a spirtual space that honors the individual men, women, and children who tried to make a life for themselves at the Sugar Creek Mission. There is a serene quality here that I have not found in many Kansas parks. There is no charge to visit, but the park does accept donations. It is one of my favorite accidental discoveries and I recommend it whenever I can.

***

What happened to the Potawatomi?

Despite building a settlement, the Potawatomi would not stay in Linn County for long. Just ten years later, the Native American band would be forced to move again, this time to St. Marys, a small town near Topeka, Kansas.

Further reading:

Trail of Death, Miami County Historical Society

Potawatomi Trail of Death Assn.

Potawatomi Trail of Death, Legends of America

Now Available in Audiobook Format!

I love, love, LOVE audiobooks. At least two out of every three books I read is an audiobook–CDs in my car or downloads on my mp3 player. I can’t imagine not listening to a book while folding laundry, cleaning guinea pig cages, cooking dinner, or mowing the lawn.

When the opportunity to create an audiobook version of Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Murder presented itself, I was thrilled.

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is now available in audiobook format from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is now available through Audible,  iTunes, and  Amazon. Both Audible and iTunes downloads can also be transferred to CD. Veteran narrator Kenneth Lee really captured the heart of the story, and he brings to life the ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances in 1925 Kansas.

A lot of people out there love a good story, but they don’t have time to sit down and read. Others spend a lot of time trapped in their cars during long commutes. Even more people out there have conditions that prevent them from being able to read–vision problems or arthritic hands that can no longer hold heavy books–even though they might long to do so. Thanks to the magic of the mp3 and the internet, thousands of audiobooks are readily available to this previously non-book-reading audience.

For you self-publishing authors out there, ACX s a company that produces and distributes audiobooks through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes, the biggest companies that sell directly to consumers. (Most libraries that offer mp3 or WMA formats use distributors like OverDrive and OneClickDigital.) Originally, I thought that audiobooks were not accessible without a substantial upfront financial commitment, but ACX offers writers the opportunity to connect with narrators who are willing to accept a profit-sharing option in lieu of up-front fees. This means more options for writers who are just establishing themselves (and narrators who are building portfolios and wanting to connect with rights holders willing to take a chance on them).

Sunday Snapshot: Frosty Clover

I’m in the throes of NaNoWriMo right now. I’m behind on my word count but I can finally feel the rhythm of the story . It’s a weird sort of hope, like finally seeing the life preserver floating in your direction after treading water for hours and hours and hours and being excited about it even though you know you’re in the middle of the ocean and you haven’t seen a boat for days.

In traditional Kansas fashion, our weather has been erratic. Today it’s raining and in the 50s (exactly right for the stormy Kansas horror novel I’m piecing together), but earlier this week, we were waking up to temperatures in the single digits. Still. The morning frost can be magnificent and beautiful if you don’t mind standing still long enough to take it in. It shows us the details that get lost in all of the green of spring and summer.Frosty Clover

Go read this book now: Home, Home Plate on the Range by Tony Hall

Home, Home Plate on the Range: Historical Guide of Major League Players from Kansas and Baseball in the Sunflower State by Tony HallDespite not being a die-hard baseball fan, I am completely in love with what has to be the ultimate historical encyclopedia of baseball in Kansas: Home, Home Plate on the Range: Historical Guide of Major League Players from Kansas and Baseball in the Sunflower State by Tony Hall. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book deserves to be on the shelves of every Kansas library and in the home of every Kansas baseball fan.

Like many kids, Tony Hall collected baseball cards as a child. But it wasn’t until he was an adult that Hall–a writer with a passion for sports–and his son took to collecting cards at yard sales, rummage sales, and estate sales. Their interests began to focus on players who were born in Kansas or played in Kansas.

That’s when Hall’s passion for Kansas baseball history took off. Decades later, it turned into an amazing 600-page book that traces baseball to its origins in Kansas, follows it to the tiny towns with their own home teams, and on to the players who would play in the majors.

Remember the first time you opened a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records, and how you found your self just flipping through it, fascinated and amazed by the information you never knew you wanted to know? That’s what Home, Home Plate on the Range is like.

This carefully organized book is easy to read cover to cover, but it’s also fun to just open up for the sake of discovering some amazing little factoid. For example:

In 1925, the all-black Wichita Monrovians team played the all-white Ku Klux Klan club. To discourage favoritism, the game was officiated by two white Catholics.

Topekan Gil Carter hit was might be the longest home run in history. The ball sailed over a 60-foot light poll at the 330-foot mark and kept going. It was found the next day under a peach tree two blocks away. Some estimates suggest it was a 733-foot hit.

Four Kansas women played on the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was featured in the movie A League of Their Own.

There are chapters on Kansans who played in the Negro League, lists of the long-forgotten minor leagues that used to exist in Kansas, biographies of Major League baseball players born in Kansas, and information on umpires, sports journalists, and MLB administrators from the Sunflower State.

Because this book often examines the biographies of players and the times during which they played, it’s a unique historical perspective of the state of Kansas. And that’s why it is perfect for the sports fan and the history buff. If you’re from Kansas, chances are good you’ll find your town–no matter how small–somewhere in the pages of this book.

So if you’re feeling a little sad that the baseball season has drawn to a close, pick up a copy of Home, Home Plate on the Range. The book itself and the field trips recommended in Chapter 17 should tide you over until spring training.

This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and can be ordered through your favorite independent book store.


Disclaimer: I first saw this book in manuscript form several years ago and fell in love with it. I was overjoyed to receive a copy of the finished book from the author a couple of weeks ago.

Why everyone, especially Kansans, should vote

Being in a smaller town, I have seen up close how important my vote can be in an election–especially when it comes time to vote for local issues and local representatives. But this election day, what’s happening in Kansas is IMPORTANT–important enough that that the whole country is watching to see how our election might change the outcome of what happens in Washington D.C. in the upcoming years, and important enough that other countries are watching, too.

It’s important enough that even Kansans are realizing their votes really could make a difference on some important matters.

“I think that for the first time in almost half a century Kansas might be consequential, that my vote might make a difference,” said Dixie Mills, 79, a retired teacher in Wichita who said she has voted in every election since 1960. “The races this time are quite critical for the national makeup of Congress and the effects that it might have on millions of people.” — Wichita Eagle, November 1, 2014

Even if you’re not lucky enough to be in Kansas, if you’re a U.S. citizen, you’re lucky enough to have the right to vote. Please get out there and exercise your right.

Candles on All Souls’ Day

All Souls' Day Candles

Today is All Souls’ Day.

It’s easy to forget this holiday exists. At the stores, the Halloween costumes have already been replaced with Christmas decorations, and the grocery stores are trying to wedge Thanksgiving fare in between October and December.

Historically, Halloween is the day we pray for protection from evil. All Saints’ Day–November 1–is the day we celebrate those in heaven. All Souls’ Day–November 2–is the day we pray for the dead.

***

When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. They lived only a couple of miles from my childhood home, and we saw them every few days, which means we were there to witness the routines of daily living.

My Croatian Catholic grandparents brought with them many of the Old-World rituals. Soup before every meal. Baking povitica every weekend. Special rituals like sprouting wheat seeds at Christmas.

It just so happened that I found myself at my grandparents’ house on November 2 one year. I remember walking into my grandmothers’ kitchen and finding a pie pan full of glowing white candles.

“What are the candles for?” I asked.

“Today we light candles for our family and friends who have died,” she said. And she pointed to each candle and told me who it was for. Her mother. Her father. Her grandmother. Her first husband. And on and on.

I was in awe of so many glowing candles on something other than a birthday cake.

“I don’t have anyone to light a candle for,” I said. Not really comprehending what those candles really meant, I was disappointed not to have any of my own to light.

“That means that everyone who matters to you is still here,” she said. “One day, though, you’ll have candles to light.”

***

I still remember when my brother called me in March of 2002 to tell me that my cousin was killed in a car wreck. It was the first time someone who truly mattered–a cousin we’d grown up with–was gone.

“We’re lucky, you know,” my brother told me before the funeral. “Somehow, we made it until now before anyone in our close circle of friends and family died.”

I was twenty-six.

And then it began.

The Big Deaths. The ones that truly alter the flow of your life. The ones that make you realize that generations are passing, that things will never be as they were. That there will come a time when you realize people you loved have been gone from your life longer than they were in your life, even though some part of you thought they would always be there.

And now I understand why my grandmother lights candles. It is more than a prayer for their souls. It is a day to remember the people who touched our lives and to celebrate how they shaped us.

***

Today, I pulled out my own pie pan and found myself filling it with candles.

My husband and I light candles for my cousin, my mother, my paternal grandmother, my mother-in-law, my husband’s four grandparents, my husband’s uncle, a candle for all of our pets, and one more candle for everyone else who touched our lives and has since passed on.

After lighting her own candles and offering prayers and reflection, my grandmother went on with her day. Cooking. Cleaning. Folding laundry. And the candles were allowed to burn. Because those who touch our lives are always a part of us, always glowing in the background, even when we aren’t thinking about them at all.