Tag Archives: Cemeteries

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,

Sunday Snapshot: Shoaf Monument at Union Cemetery

The twin columns of the Shoaf monument at Union Cemetery in Douglas County, Kansas.

The twin columns of the Shoaf monument at Union Cemetery in Douglas County, Kansas.

We were on our way home from a weekend drive–the storm clouds to the east of this monument would eventually produce a tornado near Atchison, Kansas–when we spotted this unique monument. Twin columns, twin urns.

Twins. Lost.

The epitaph for Ulles Uriar Shoaf (April 17, 1866–October 26, 1882) and Susan Marria Shoaf (April 17, 1866–November 20, 1882), reads:

They were lovely and pleasant in their lives.
By death they were not long divided.
Twin Son & Daughter of
Solomon & Margaret
Shoaf

Sunday Snapshot: Sharp-Morrison Cemetery

Sharp-Morrison Cemetery in Linn County, Kansas

Sharp-Morrison Cemetery in Linn County, Kansas.

It’s known as the Sharp-Morrison Cemetery, because the larger monument belongs to George J. Sharp (1809-1873) and the smaller one belongs to George J. Morrison (1871-1879). They are alone at the edge of a field, not far from where No. 15 School once stood, shielded by the ghost of a tree gone nearly as long as the two Georges.

Sunday Snapshots: Weather and wandering in southeast Miami County, Kansas

Our drought-plagued state breathed a small sigh of relief this past week as rainstorm after rainstorm swept through much of the state. It’s not enough rain to repair the damage of several dry years, but it’s helping. Between the storms, Jim and I have found ourselves wandering the countryside and enjoying the late spring weather, especially in the evenings. Yesterday, we wandered around southeast Miami County, which is currently lush and green. The rural landscape is dotted with old cemeteries and a handful of tiny towns, though our truck’s brakes got a workout as deer, loose cows, and rabbits dashed across the gravel roads.

Wednesday Evening Storm in Ottawa, Kansas

Wednesday night: In a matter of minutes, this rolled into my neighborhood Wednesday night.

Wednesday evening storm in Ottawa, Kansas

Those clouds were followed by this.

Last night was lovely, so we jumped in the truck and went for a drive with no particular destination in mind. We found ourselves on our way to Miami County, and as we drove past Princeton, we saw a sun dog near the water tower.

Sun dog near Princeton, Kansas water tower

As we drove through Southwest Franklin County, we spotted sun dogs in the sky near Princeton.

In Miami County, we discovered an old country cemetery. Spring Grove Quaker Cemetery was established in 1860, and it was especially picturesque in the setting sun.

Many of the headstones have weathered well, and their art, as well as the epitaphs, are still visible.

And just before the sun sank completely, we were treated to miles and miles evening primrose blooming along the gravel roads of Miami County.

Evening Primrose in Miami County

Evening Primrose blooms along Miami County roads.

Sunday Snapshot: Bridging the Marais des Cygnes River

Kansas is ablaze with prairie fires right now as the farmers and ranchers are preparing their fields for rebirth. Unfortunately for my asthmatic self, I’m stuck inside instead of trying my hand at paying homage to photographers like Larry Schwarm or Dave Leiker by creating a pastiche of their amazing images of this prairie rite of passage. Taking pity, Jim took me for a quick ride around town so I could escape the house.

We drove through Hope Cemetery, which was hazy with prairie fire smoke.

That haze in the background at Hope Cemetery isn't fog. It's smoke blowing in from the prairie fires.

That haze in the background at Hope Cemetery isn’t fog. It’s smoke blowing in from the prairie fires.

And then, for the first time, we followed the gravel road past the cemetery, where we found a pretty view of the Marais des Cygnes River.

An old railroad bridge crosses the Marais Des Cygnes River west of Ottawa.

An old railroad bridge crosses the Marais des Cygnes River west of Ottawa.

The Marais Des Cygnes River west of Ottawa.

The Marais des Cygnes River west of Ottawa.

The forecast calls for thunderstorms this week, which will wash away the smoke. In the meanwhile, I’m hiding in the house again.

Sunday Snapshot: She loved her cows and Kansas (at Fort Scott National Cemetery)

I’ll write more on Fort Scott and the national cemetery soon. In the meanwhile, I was surprised (and charmed) to discover modern military headstones allow a little personalization.

image

Bertha Elizabeth Lyons, 1918-2008. Naval Pharmacist Mate Third Class during World War II. Lover of cows and Kansas the rest of her life.

Sunday Snapshot: The tree stump monuments at Clinton Cemetery

A local weather forecaster suggested that Kansans needed Dramamine in order to survive the roller coaster that is March weather in the Midwest. When I woke up this morning, there was snow and sleet on the ground. But Friday was beautiful and warm and Jim and I went for a drive to take in the sunshine. We found ourselves driving around Clinton Lake.

Clinton Lake at dusk.

Clinton Lake at dusk.

I have a few childhood memories of Clinton Lake, but I did not know back then that the lake was relatively new, having been completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1977. The town of Clinton survived; some other unincorporated communities vanished into the watershed district. Near the town of Clinton, though, is Clinton Cemetery, which turned out to be a treasure trove of gnarled trees and old and interesting graves.

Except for in communities with easy railroad access or a local stone mason, elaborate monuments are scarce in Kansas before the 1890s. Headstones celebrating those with birthdays before 1800 are also scarce west of the Kansas City area. And yet, here in Clinton Cemetery, there are several examples of beautiful tree stump monuments, stones with embedded porcelain photographs, and other creative and intricate markers. There are graves for children of men who fought in the Revolutionary War and there is at least one marker for a former slave born in 1799.

Nickerson Cowan (also listed as Cowen in the cemetery records). "Passed to the Spiritland of the 17 Day of May 1886, Aged 87 Years. A slave till Lincoln's proclamation on 1 January 1863.

Nickerson Cowan (also listed as Cowen in the cemetery records). “Passed to the Spiritland of the 17 Day of May 1886, Aged 87 Years. A slave till Lincoln’s proclamation on 1 January 1863.

Should you find yourself at Clinton Lake this summer, make a little time for the museum (which is open May through October) and this cemetery. It is worth a visit.