Of the  four stars in Dad’s firmament: Seneca, Vinita, OMA and Mercedes, Mercedes was the greatest disappointment to me.  After leaving San Antonio where I had wonderful days with my sister, Deborah, and her son, Coleman–watch the new season of Top Chef for his restaurant Le Frite where he is Chef–I headed to the Rio Grande.

Dad’s fabled ranch home with horses, vaqueros, cattle and dogs was  in Mercedes.  I had high hopes that I would find some trace of the happy life he described drove me to this far off place.  Driving along the Tropical Trail south from San Antonio I thought briefly that I was in Palm Springs as the boulevard approaching Corpus Cristi was lined with tall graceful palm trees which are prevalent throughout south Texas.

I had decided to stay in the county seat, Edinburg, and not in Mercedes, so I could go to the county clerk’s office and the South Texas Museum.  As I drove through Mercedes I was deeply disappointed for it seems to have nothing left of its former glory.  Mercedes, founded in 1907, was dubbed “La Reina del Valle.”  She is no longer so regal!

Mercedes came into being when the American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company brought eager investors to south Texas to finance the irrigation system that would turn the valley into the garden of Eden thanks to the copious waters of the Rio Grande.  Cattle and cotton were to be replaced by the myriad crops which would be possible as a result of the plentiful water and the fertile soil.  The soil was fertile for the same reason that Nile valley soil is–annual deposits by the great river making its way to the Gulf.  My family arrived in Mercedes in 1920 just as it began to boom.

Saddened to learn that there was no historical district in Mercedes to visit, I learned from the knowlegeable curator in the South Texas McAllen Historical Museum Archives that the reason so many old buildings are not standing is due to the high water table throughout the area which leaches into and destroys historical buildings made of stucco, brick and adobe.

I looked at and photographed pictures of the school house where dad had gone to gradeschool and one year of highschool.  There were lovely pictures of old Mercedes in the 20s and 30’s.  It was a stylish little city now replaced by endless strip malls, express ways and beltways leading to more strip malls.

I’m sure that Texas must have many pretty old towns but they are not readily visible due to the endless miles of expressways, beltways and interstates that surround them. Looking at a map of San Antonio I was reminded of a plate of spaghetti; the prospect of negotiating these roadways left me terrified.

At the Edinburg Courthouse I learned that my great grandmother, her son, James, and daughter-in-law, Olive, (first time I’d heard of her) were land owners in the Mercedes area and elsewhere.  I haven’t puzzled out all the records of deeds and so on obtained at the County Clerk’s office but it is an interesting development.

I also learned that our great uncle, James Sherer, died at the age of 31 from a cerebral hemorrhage.  I don’t know what happened to wife, Olive, or if they had any children.  They were married for ten years.  James’ sister, Henri Alberta, my grandmother, also died young at the age of 30.

On James Sherer’s death certificate I saw my father’s name and realized that he was the person who identified his uncle and provided the information needed for his burial.  This was stunning information as none of us had ever known this sad fact of my father’s life.  His uncle was only six years older than Dad and they had grown up together.  Now I understand why dad left college in Missouri and moved to Houston in 1936 to be joined by his bride.  He had come to be with for his dying uncle.  His beloved grandmother died a year later.

New Year

I spent the Jewish new year away from home for the first time in almost 40 years.  Before the holiday began yesterday I was feeling very disjointed and out of place.  Not only was I away from home, husband, and friends, I have spent the past month traveling by myself to places from another time–my childhood and my father’s childhood–spending time with relatives and siblings and their families that I have not seen in years.

I have been processing the integration of my life before I chose Judaism and my life today.  My immersion in and mastery of Jewish life has overshadowed my natal identity and in effect extinguished the girl I was–cutting her adrift.  Taking this long trip by myself and for myself–4K miles and 30 days–has reunited me with people and places from my past and I am overjoyed with all that I have found.  I believe that the girl I lost has also been found.

Will Rogers

Oct. 18, 1931  “The only problem that confronts this country today is at least 7,000,000 people are out of work.  That’s our only problem.  There is no other one before us at all.  It’s to see that every man that wants to is able to work, is allowed to find a place to go to work, and also to arrange some way of getting more equal distribution of the wealth in the counry.”  Will Rogers

This is an excerpt from a talk Will Rogers gave which was broadcast to the American public at the request of President Hoover.  The title of the talk was “Bacon and Beans and Limousines.  Rogers was completely comfortable calling things exactly as he saw them and was unfailingly in tune with the public.

He was a remarkable man.  Born in Indian Territory in 1866 he was about 1/4 Cherokee.  Son of a prosperous, well-respected family he grew up in Vinita and Claremore.  My great grandmother, Alice, was about 13 years older than Will and may very well have taught him when he was in school in Vinita.

Dad grew up hearing about Will Rogers.  We grew up knowing about Will Rogers.  Reading some of his speeches and watching his roping tricks–truly brilliant athletic performances–I am and will always be very impressed by his grace, intelligence and humor.

He and Wiley Post were killed in 1935 when the 3-man plane they were in crashed near Point Barrow, Alaska.  The outpouring of grief was enormous; thousands of mourners filed by his casket in California and in Oklahoma.  His body was first brought to Hollywood and then home to Claremore where he is buried.  Wiley Post is buried in Oklahoma City and a small craft airport there is named after him.

Identifying with a man like Will Rogers was heady stuff for a boy without a father.  Rogers was also supportive of OMA so dad must have heard nothing but good things about him there.  Why not identify yourself with this legend?  I tried to think is there anyone at all like Will Rogers in today’s world?  Athlete, thinker, writer, humorist, humanitarian, actor, philanthropist, loving father, son, and devoted husband.  No one came to mind.

Rogers Memorial Museum Claremore

OMA and Claremore Oklahoma

OMA, the Oklahoma Military Academy, occupied 800 acres in Claremore, Oklahoma on a hill overlooking beautiful rolling heavily treed grasslands.  OMA opened in a series of iterations complicated initially by the fact that Claremore was in the IT and while the government wished to fund higher education in Oklahoma they did not have the right to allocate Cherokee land.

By 1912 there was a prep school on the hill which carried forward to 1917.  By 1919 there was officially a military academy modeled after West Point which encompassed a secondary school preparing students to enter a four-year college or university.

Students who attended OMA were called cadets and during part of their first year were subjected to the usual kind of humiliating experiences plebes experience such as having their head shaved  and responding to the orders–no matter how absurd–of more senior cadets.   This was called the “rabbit year.”

The cadets were housed two to a room with a bunk, a desk, a chest of drawer and a closet.  They were required to be in their chairs studying from 7-9 p.m. every evening.

To attend OMA the cadet had to be appointed by an Oklahoma state legislator; out of state cadets could not be appointees and paid a higher tuition, others received scholarships.

My father began his career at OMA in 1930.  He is pictured in the yearbook, the Guidon, in Company “B” and mentioned as an excellent athlete in both boxing and football.  He “annexed the Middleweight Crown at the S.W.A.A.U. Tournament at Wichita Kansas in 1930.

In the 1931 Guidon speaking of their football team “Jack Smith played everything but quarterback in the backfield, and though he had plenty of opposition, he seemed to get past it.”  Dad was a very talented athlete.  It is interesting to note that in the Guidon he lists his hometown as Tulsa.   He does not use his legal name but uses Jack or James Smith or Jack T. Smith.  Could he have had strong feelings about using his first name which was that of his father?

During my visit at Rogers State University yesterday located on the former OMA site, I had a tour of the OMA Museum.  I was curious about what it cost in 1930 to attend OMA.  If you were an appointed cadet it was about $438 for the school year in addition to small fees for lab courses, personal spending and so on.  Out-of- state and unappointed students paid about $100 more per academic year.

The Great Depression will soon be in full sway and the ravages of the dust bowl will engulf this region.  I cannot fathom  who paid my father’s tuition.  His mother died in 1919, his elderly twice-widowed grandmother in 1937.  Dad may have had an athletic scholarship but someone had to provide him with a home during the summer, transportation and spending money.  In 1930 he was 19 years old–probably older than some of his peers–nevertheless he must have had someone looking out for him–or maybe he didn’t.

As kids we learned about demerits, about “assuming the position,”  (bending over and holding our ankles) to get paddled for our misbehavior, how to march and “cut a corner,” and how to make a bed so a coin could be bounced on it.  Saturday mornings we could be found in our Kansas City backyard shouldering our make believe rifles and marching off our demerits.  While Dad learned all this he also learned self-discipline and high ethical standards which he passed along to all of us.


Another small town–the second oldest town in Oklahoma.  Created by the intersection of the railroad tracks which still thunder through town.  High hopes here to learn somethng new.

My great grandparents came here when it was Indian Territory— probably in 1889 the year of their daughter’s birth.  An exciting time for Alice, or Allie, as she was called; one of Vinita‘s first teachers.   While there was a picture of the head master in the Eastern Trail Museum in Vinita, there was not a picture of the staff.  I have never seen a likeness of any Sherer and had hoped to do so in Vinita.  No luck!

James Lenore Sherer was a successful businessman engaged in well-drilling and other activities.  He also worked at the grain depot in Vinita and served on local community organizations despite the fact that to the best of my knowledge he was not a Cherokee.  During the early 20th Century Vinita was in Indian Territory and governed by the Cherokee nation.  White people could not have businesses in IT without Cherokee permission.

His obituary was on the front page of the Vinita Daily Chieftan 25 January 1907.  “Mr. Sherer was well known in Vinita where he has lived for some time.  He was for several years engaged in the mercantile business in Seneca.  Since coming here, however, he has  been engaged in the business of well-drilling and has drillled numerous oil wells also.”

Why was Dad so taken wth Vinita?  His mother, father, grandmother and uncle (6 years his senior) are all living there in the 1910 census.  A year later dad is born in Kansas City and a year later his father departs for Idaho never to return.

I imagine that dad and his mother returned to Vinita where his grandmother and uncle must have been living.  Perhaps he associated Vinita with family and security. Perhaps a Cherokee woman cared for him while his grandmother and mother taught school.   I think this period is the origin of his belief that he was part Cherokee.  Although I can find no evidence that there is a Cherokee family member, Dad clearly identified with the Cherokee at a very early age and never relinquished the notion that he was part Cherokee.  I would like to find that link–I don’t believe that my father intentionnally fabricated this notion.   He was a boy who needed an identity that was familiar and positive.  Somehow he was led to believe that he was Cherokee.

We all grew up with the belief that we were part Cherokee.  I don’t recall my mother ever disputing or seconding this notion.  My research has shaken our sense of who we are and where we came from.  I think that some of us clung more closely to the idea of our native American heritage than others.  I know that each of us would love to know the truth–is it possible to know the truth?  Ever?

Salt of the Earth

I have just spent two days with my cousin, Pat, and his wife, Jan, and their son, Dan, his wife Amy and daughter, Hanna in Smithville, Missouri.  I also visited Pat’s brother, Ray, who lives there too.  The expression, “salt of the earth” comes from the Book of Matthew which describes the sermon on the mount.  Jesus compares good, honest and hard working people to the pleasure salt brings to our enjoyment of food.  In those days–and now– salt gives flavor and gusto to our meals.  It was a rare and prized commodity very much like good, steadfast and generous people are.

Both Pat and Jan come from generations of farmers.  Men and woman who own their land; work hard and may be comfortable but rarely rich.  They struggle with pests, drought, hail, floods, and ever-more complex and oppressive regulations.  They have no one to bail them out if the corn is destroyed by hail; if the Missouri overflows its banks; if the grasshoppers eat the silk on the corn.  They just keep on truckin’.  They depend on one another and they bank the good will they have earned from their neighbors over a lifetime of concern and caring.

I spent two days with Pat and Jan.  We talked endlessly of our lives and of growing up and of our families.  My mother and her family came from generations of farmers as well.  Pat’s mom, Louise, and mine were sisters.  I loved visiting the farm more than anything else when I was a girl; I loved my cousins–still do!

I also visited the home where my grandparents lived and helped to raise me during the war.  The house is just how I remembered it.  A lovely family with three children live in it now.  It was like a small miracle to stand before that house and remember how lucky and how loved I was as a child.

Meetings, Beginnings

My parents, Ruth B. Strange and Troy James Smith, met at NW Missouri State Teachers College in Maryville, Missouri in 1934.  This campus is now part of the Missouri university system and has grown considerably.  When I walked the campus yesterday I had the strong impression of my parents walking the same paths, moving in and out of the buildings, going to dances, classes, football games, studying.  My overwhelming feelings were ones of sadness; I wished that as a kid they had brought us here to see where they met but they didn’t.

I stopped at the Alumni House first and was greeted warmly by Haley and by Lynn Ruhl.  We looked in the ’34, ’35 and ’36 year books and found mom and dad’s pictures on numerous pages.  Mom was in the honor society of the School of Business and Economics (few woman in that field!) and a sorority.  Dad was in the Industrial Arts Club, and the M Club–for athletes who lettered in football, basketball, or track.

Roberta Hall was built in the 1920’s and still houses women students.  The universtiy archivist, Cathy Palmer, provided me with numerous clips detailing the activities my parents enjoyed.  An article dated May 25, 1934 says, “…Ruth Strange and James Smith…” attended the Tri Sigma annual Spring Dance at the Elks Club.  The room was decorated in the colors of the sorority–purple and white..

Later as their romance progressed, they took the Wabash (Remember the song “The Wabash Cannon Ball”?)  home.  Mom’s youngest sister, Bette, still in high school remembers that “Jimmy was all Ruth could think about.”  I believe that remained the case all her life.

Oskaloosa, Iowa

I drove to Oskaloosa where the Nelson Family Pioneer Farm is located which houses the Historical Society.  The genealogist was off duty today but one of the volunteers, Margaret Ademeit, was a huge help to me.  She was able to locate the court documents and probate information filed with the Mahaska County court after Calvin Jones Jackson died in March 1900.

It’s an interesting story–it appears that his second wife, Parthenia who was 27 years his junior, went to court in 1899 and petitioned to have CJ declared of “unsound mind” (he was 79 years old) and she appointed his guardian.  The court granted her petition.

CJ died in March 1900 and within 10 days Parthenia had petitioned the court for permission to sell the estate.  By November, the court awarded her 1/3 of the estate’s value and the defendents–the heirs–were left to divide the balance nine ways.  I have a lot more to find out about Parthenia K. Gilchrist!

My great grandmother was married in 1886 and out of the house at the time of her father’s death.  She is listed as a defendent by her married name, Sherer, in the court documents.  My sister once asked Dad why his grandmother left Iowa.  She recounts that dad told her his grandmother could not stand Parthenia and got married and left for the wilds of Oklahoma Indian Territory rather than stay under the same roof.

I drove out to Rose Hill where the Jacksons lived and visited the Jackson Cemetery.  Very fertile, pretty land with rolling low hills and lots of trees and stands and stands of corn ripening in the sun.  Only one Jackson headstone–CJ’s–is there. His first wife, (Eliza) is not buried there, neither is Parthenia and none of the children either.  I want to find out where they are buried?  What fun this is trying to imagine the family dynamics.  I have a lot more research to do with this lively group!

The estate inventory which I photographed–they do not allow copying of these original documents, lists everything from sets of dishes to a heifer, and colts.  Jackson owned 300 acres which is less than a square mile but a sizable amount of fine rich land.

The road to the cemetery is at the interesection of Jackson Street and Madison.  I followed Madison on a narrow dirt road along a creek up a hill overlooking the countryside and walked around. In addition to CJ’s granite stone there were some elaborate white marble headstones eroded but the dates are still visible  They date to the early 1800’s.  What a great day I had!

Platt River Valley

Today was more of the same featuring cattle, corn and wheat.  The fields were greener, trees were taller and leafier; there was a breeze and big blue skies.  I stopped at a rest stop on the North Platt River west of Kearney, Nebraska.  I found this installation oddly moving.  The pioneers traveling west went along what is today’s highway 80–the one I’ve been on–following the North Platt River.

Here you see the actual ruts from their wagons preserved in the sod.  There are wheel-forms bound in iron placed in the ruts to remind us of the actual size of the wagons the people had with everything they owned on board.  I paused to digest this as I sailed along the interstate at 75 miles per hour.  Having spent the last three days traveling over 1,200 miles I appreciate what the pioneers did–I marvel at what they did!