My adopted great-great-grandmother Ruth Jane (Tucker) Black lived most of her adult life in a humble sod house in Jewell county, Kansas. Like nearly all of the citizens of Jewell county at that time, she was not born there, but immigrated from elsewhere. I had thought that Ruth was born in Ohio, as that was what she (and later, her son Frank) reported on numerous federal and state censuses. Oddly, though, I was never able to find a record of Ruth before she was married. Thanks to my cousin Sharon Black, that’s no longer the case.
Earlier this week Sharon sent me a couple of stories that she found in the course of her research. One of these is an utterly charming recollection of a woman named Winnie Bonecutter Riemensnider, who took Ruth as her adopted grandmother. Winnie’s mother died when Winnie was only a year and a half old. Winnie (born Winifred Alice Bonecutter on January 8, 1896) was 54 years younger than Ruth, and when Ruth died on February 15, 1915, Winnie was only 19 years old. Clearly, however, the two had a close and abiding relationship.
What follows is the story that Sharon sent me; the story that Winnie Bonecutter
Riemensnider recounted later in her life in her book God Walks With Me. The events recounted herein took place in Ruth Black’s old sod house, located near the tiny town of Dentonia (Odessa township, Jewell county), Kansas.
I was fortunate in some ways, especially in having an adopted Grandmother. No amount of words in my vocabulary can really explain the help, spiritual and physical this wonderful old lady gave to me.
No one else took the time to give me the idea of a really good standard of living. Hour upon hour in the cool quiet of her homie little place, Grandma Black told me of people, places and things. She made up for many things that were missing.
Grandma Black was born to a fine old southern family. She was raised on a plantation with colored servants to care for her.
She must have been real young when she eloped with a Yankee soldier and regretted it to her last day. In her quiet refined way she told me many times of finding the wounded soldier in the shade of a large tree, that bordered the driveway. He was one of Sherman’s men, left behind on his famous march to the sea.
She soon fell in love with the soldier. Her Grandmother, with whom she lived, helped care for him until she discovered their love, then she turned him over to the darkies to care for as a “dirty Yankee” should be.
Later they stole away, he in a borrowed suit and she in her second best, and were married. They never received the forgiveness they hoped for.
As the end of the war was near they came north. After years of hard work in a country despised, she was left alone with their small children. She received some of her personal things, and a small amount of money from her home, and in that way she managed to take care of her family until the boys were grown.
She was always a gracious hostess, but reserved in manner and as she grew older she retired more and more within herself, and scarcely ever went out in public.
The community, as a whole, thought her very peculiar, but she was far above most of them in intelligence.
Her little sod house where she lived with her youngest son was very uncommon. Few soddies were standing, much less livable, when I was young. This one had two rooms. The thick walls made a nice wide window seat where I loved to sit in the winter. Grandma Black knew that and often removed a few plants to make room for me. It was very small, the roof almost flat and covered with white clay. The ceiling was wide boards placed on a long ridge pole. These planks were whitewashed every few months. It would have been a disgrace to let them show dirt. They papered the walls with gay colored paper but it was mostly hidden by furniture and pictures. In the back room were two beds with curtains to pull at night for a partition, and two little rockers with a large chest. There was also a table for the lamp and magazines. The carpet was a pattern of big red roses which was very popular then, but it was mostly covered with homemade braided rugs to protect it from wear.
Her massive bedstead and chest, brought from the south, were made from walnut wood from the family plantation. It looked odd in that little sod house, but she kept it polished to perfection.
I was so pleased when she let me open her walnut chest. Almost everything in this chest was saved from years back. Saved for the nice home she hoped to have. The top tray was filled with chemises and drawers, with handmade lace and embroidery edges.
In summer the cool interior of the sod house, Grandma’s pleasant voice, that had never lost its southern accent, was a pleasant place to lose myself in dreaming. Her dream of a better life never came true. She died in her soddy when I was eighteen years old. She was deeply religious and one thing she said not long before she died made me realize she had given up her greatest desire. She said, “Winnie, we cannot always live as we wish, but we can hope and pray.”
In this memory of mine is her garden. It was also old fashioned. Morning Glories ran all over the fence. Sweet Williams, Pinks and Double Moss was scattered everywhere, with big bunches of Four O’Clocks in the corners.
Vivid in my memory also is her low roofed soddy, with windows full of blooming Geraniums, and the funny carving on the front door. On it, was a peculiar iron knocker. Her husband has fashioned it long ago in his blacksmith shop.
Beside the door and over a home-made trellis grew a large Honeysuckle vine, brought from the south. The roots had been transplanted many times always with the thought in the “The next time it will be beside my nice frame cottage.”
In the months to come, I’ll be trying to locate Ruth’s childhood plantation home and discover more about the gentle lady who gave up a life of privilege to follow her heart and marry the wounded Yankee she found near her home.
I’d like to see if any of the Ruth’s items that Winnie mentions are still in existence. I have a rocking chair from the sod house (although I wouldn’t have called it “little”), a kerosene lamp, a large chest also said to be from the sod house (although the one I have isn’t walnut), an old clothes iron, and a Civil War era photo album. I’ll eventually write posts on each of these artifacts. Let me know if you have or know of any other objects from Ruth’s “soddy”—it would be great to learn that family members still keep and treasure some of these items.
I’ll leave you with a couple of photos of Ruth in front of her sod house, taken around 1905.