My grandmother Cleo told me the story of the catastrophic end of her grandmother Jennie Shinn’s first marriage, but the way she told it made it clear it was a sidebar. What was important was what Jennie went on to do. You can see from the photo that Jennie lived to old age and got to play with her grandchildren. But what came in between the grim look on her face in the picture last time, and this triumphant grin?
On March 15, 1895, three years after her first husband disappeared, Jennie Boggs Rock married Edwin F. Shinn in Clunette, Indiana. Ed was 41; Jennie was 32. She had a five-year-old son, John, and a three-year-old daughter, Zena.
The story handed down through Zena’s descendants was that Ed Shinn was a laborer on Jennie’s parents’ farm in Clunette. Ed’s obituary, as well as newspaper stories during his lifetime, say that he was a teacher. I can easily see both these things being true; he may well have taught during the school year and hired out during the summer, just as many teachers today have to hold down more than one job to make ends meet.
Jennie’s parents were well-off enough that they had a small house on their property where they let their newlywed children stay until the new couple could afford a place of their own. They called it “The Hatching House.” Jennie and Ed lived there until some time before March 1896, when their first child, Earl, was born.
In 1889, the US government had opened almost two million acres in what is now Oklahoma to white settlement. The land originally belonged to Plains tribes including the Comanche, Kiowa, Tonkawa and Wichita. In 1832, the federal government removed the Creek tribe from Alabama and placed them in this area; in 1856, some of the land was ceded to the Seminole tribe, whom the government had removed from Florida. In the Civil War, the Union withdrew from Indian Territory and a number of tribes made treaties with, and fought for, the Confederacy. The Reconstruction Treaties of 1866 forced the Seminole to sell much of their land to the government for fifteen cents an acre. Part of this land became Cleveland County, Oklahoma.
I don’t know how Ed and Jennie decided to move to Cleveland County. This Slate Magazine article shows that railroads were enticing settlers out to Oklahoma even before the lands were legally available. My aunt Ev remembers a story that Ed went down there first to scope things out, and Jennie and her children came on the train later. Little Zena told her fellow passengers that she was traveling to be with her new daddy, which breaks my heart a little bit.
Here are some of the things Jennie did in Oklahoma. Unless otherwise noted, these stories come from notes I took on conversations with my grandmother in 1992 and 1993.
Midwifery and Medicine
Women in labor would send for Jennie and for the doctor at the same time. Jennie tended to get there first and deliver the baby; the doctor arrived later, signed the birth certificate and pocketed the fee.
When Zena’s daughter Genevieve was born prematurely, weighing only a couple of pounds, Jennie fed her with an eyedropper and put her in a box with hot bricks wrapped in flannel to keep her warm. Genevieve survived.
When Zena’s daughter Cleo had a cut that got infected, Jennie poulticed it with moldy bread. Some bread molds produce the antibiotic penicillin, as Alexander Fleming found in 1928. Cleo was born in 1914, so if this incident happened before she was 14 years old, Jennie was ahead of the bacteriologists.
Cleo wanted to take the county eighth-grade exam when she was younger than most who took it. Taking the exam cost 50¢. Her mother, Zena, said it was a waste of money they didn’t have. When Jennie heard this, she gave Cleo the 50¢ and said, “It’ll be good practice for a future test, even if you don’t pass. But I think you will.” She did.
Remember the newspaper quote from last time, where Jennie described serving as an unpaid dressmaker to her Rock in-laws? In Oklahoma, she seems to have been famed for her tailoring skill. Neighbors would bring her pictures of clothes they wanted to make. She would draft the pattern pieces for them.
Once Cleo went to visit her wearing a threadbare coat. Jennie pulled one of her own old coats out of the closet, got out her shears, and by the time Cleo left, she had a new coat, lining and all.
Jennie made Zena’s wedding dress of rust-colored silk satin and flowered lace. She almost certainly made the pretty outfit Zena is wearing in this picture.
On the practical side, she made many rag rugs. I still have one in my house; it made an appearance in Theatre Unbound’s 2012 production of my play Murderess.
Jennie also made this confection of an undergarment.
It’s not obvious when laid flat like this, but the little gathers at the top of the yoke cause the lace insets to perfectly follow the curve of the breasts.
Given the many stories of Jennie helping others, when my gramma showed me this gorgeous thing and told me, “Gramma Shinn made it,” my first question was, “Who for?”
Gramma said, a bit proudly, “Herself.”
It takes a fair amount of self-respect to lavish some of your own expertise and hard work on yourself. I don’t think it’s farfetched to say that this piece of Jennie’s handwork gives evidence of the qualities that allowed her to seize her opportunities, survive and flourish and do everything possible to make sure her children and grandchildren did the same.
“She was my ideal,” my Gramma said.