Volume X, No. 4, Summer 1983
THE POETRY OF MARY ELIZABETH MAHNKEY
with an introduction by Jeff Zander
"I write because it seems to give pleasure to people--especially old people," Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey said in the 1930s when her work began to get recognition outside the readers of the Taney County paper which had published her writings since 1891. Her simple, homey verses straight from her life in the Ozark hills still continue to give pleasure, and not only to older people. An active concerned person who experienced all of life, its joys and tragedies, she lived her belief that each of us should do something and be something, not something spectacular, but be a contributor to everyday living in some way. Being modest and not realizing the beauty she had cultivated over her years of living and writing, she wrote the following poem.
"And here I'll plant some hollyhocks
For they will come again.
They don't need much attention
And very little rain."
I'm glad she sowed the hollyhocks
For now they bloom for me.
All up and down and 'round about,
A rippling, rosy sea--
The hollyhocks my granny sowed
In Eighteen Ninety-three.
And what may I be sowing
That they will pause to say:
"How lovely are the blossoms
We find along our way."
Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey wrote her poems with a lyrical quality and some were easily set to music. Her newspaper articles won the Best Rural Correspondent Award in 1935. Some of her poetry has been published in periodicals and in two small books. Even though she died in 1948, Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey's writings still sing of Ozark life to all who rediscover her work.
Though she lived in many different places in her life, except for two short periods she lived in the Ozarks, her parents coming to the Arkansas Ozarks before she was born.
Her father, Alonzo Prather, was from Indiana and her mother, Maria McMillian, from Ohio. After they married, they moved to northwest Arkansas because the President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, appointed Mr. Prather as Commissioner of Education for northwest Arkansas. The appointment involved establishing schools in that part of the state. He was stationed in Huntsville, Arkansas, and helped start the Agriculaturaland Industrial College at Fayetteville, now the University of Arkansas. Mr. Prather was then named as Land Receiver of Harrison, Arkansas, in Boone County. Mary Elizabeth Prather, called Mamie by her friends and family, was born in Harrison in August, 1877.
Mamie was a very active child and had several narrow escapes. One occured when she was two
years old. The Prathers traveled into the Oklahoma Territory in present day Kansas. On the trip,
Mamie fell out of a wagon and a wheel ran over her fingers, breaking them. The family didn't miss
her until after they had traveled on a while. They returned to pick her up and then continued on.
While she was living in Kansas, Mamie had an interesting encounter with some Indians. Her son, Douglas Mahnkey tells the story.
"My mother was only two years old when they lived there in Kansas where there were quite a few Indians left. Mother had dark blue eyes and real curly hair. My grandmother was a great hand at making good light bread. One day when none of the Prather men folks were home, three Indians smelled that light bread cooking. They just came in and took it off of the table, broke it up and ate it, laughing as they did so.
The youngest of these men was attracted by Mother with her blue eyes and curly hair. He kept pulling those little curls of hair out and watched them spring back.
"When they got ready to go, he picked up my mother and started away with her. The two other older Indians remonstrated with him. After they rode away a hundred yards or so, he wheeled his pony around, came back and set the baby over the fence."
The Prathers then moved to Taney County in Missouri. It was there that Mamie's father, Alonzo, helped in the organization of the Bald Knobbers, a vigilante group originally intended to stop the lawlessness which prevaled in Taney County following the Civil War, but in 1886 met with the Adjutant General of Missouri and disbanded.
Alonzo Prather wrote for the Taney County Republican. When Mary Elizabeth was fourteen, Mr. Prather was elected to the state legislature and turned his column over to her. She continued writing the column for fifty-five years until her death.
The column was about the people in the Taney County area. It told of such homey things as a birth or death, a wedding or maybe about someone trading a team of horses--the cycle of contented life. She wouldn't write about international news because she thought it was unnatural and wrong on how man was supposed to live.
Right after she began writing her "pieces," as she called them, the family moved just south of Kirbyville. It was there that she met sixteen year old Charles Preston Mahnkey. Pres's family had ridden a train from St. Louis County to Springfield, Missouri. From there they drove their cattle on to their new home near Kirbyville. Pres was helping drive the herd which had to pass by the Prather house. That's when they first met. From that time, Mamie and Pres were sweethearts at school.
Mamie had very little formal education. She first entered school in Taney County when she was seven years old.
The teacher asked her if she could read. She replied, "Well, I've read the Pilgrim's Progress." She didn't graduate from high school, but did acquire an education equal to the current eighth grade. She most always had a dictionary at her side to look up words that she didn't know. An avid reader, she read periodicals such as The Saturday Evening Post. Then when radios were introduced, Mamie got herself a small radio in order to keep up with the news.
A while after she completed her final year of school, Mary Elizabeth attended what was called a Teacher's Institute, a two-week seminar at Bradleyville designed to prepare young people to teach. She taught three terms of school before she and Pres got married, January 18, 1899.
Pres worked at several different ventures in addition to farming. He kept a country store, post office, cotton gin and a mill with Mary Elizabeth keeping the books at the country store. Sometimes she would stay up late to get everything to balance just right. If people couldn't pay their bill, the Mahnkeys would credit them through the summer until they brought their cotton to the gin.
Doug Mahnkey recalled a time when his mother kept books at a store. "We had sold the store and were going to move away. In settling up the accounts, I remember there were two preachers in the community. Late at night they were going over one of their accounts by the light of a little coal oil lamp. The preacher argued with her all night about what he bought one day or the next. After this went on for a little while, pretty soon she just slammed the book shut and said, "Preacher, I'm going to tell you something. I've settled up a hundred accounts here this fall, and you two preachers are the only ones that have given me trouble."
Mary Elizabeth and Pres moved many times. They had hard times as they lived one place or the other in little houses, but she continued writing her column wherever she lived. She rarely got any pay for her contributions. Though she didn't expect any, she would complain sometimes because some of the papers she wrote for wouldn't furnish her stamps or paper.
In addition to writing for the Taney County Republican, Mary Elizabeth regularly contributed to the "Waste Basket," a feature in the Springfield Daily News, containing poetry and other thoughts of contributors. It was then that she began writing her poetry when she was about fifty years old.
Mary Elizabeth's newspaper writing opened the door to her son in almost every home in the area when he was running for political office. He would go door to door to introduce himself, and because of his mother's articles, people would invite him in saying, "We know you!"
The Mahnkeys had four children, three boys and a girl. Doug liked to tell stories about his parents. "When we were small, we had very little, but Mother always entertained us somehow or another. When it was nice weather, she'd take us for walks. She could identify many flowers and trees. Then on bad days, she had a blue velvet button bag that she kept hanging on the wall. On special days when it was rainy or cold, we could play with the button bag.
"Mother was a great whistler," he continued. "My father could play the harmonica real well. But he couldn't remember to start a tune. Mother was such a good whistler he would always say--he called her Old Lady--he would say, 'Old Lady, whistle a bit of that tune!' She'd whistle a little bit and he'd play it."
Although Mary Elizabeth was skeptical of preachers, she was baptized and was very religious. She often taught Sunday School, but she never did any other church work and was never tied down to any one church.
In 1934 her book of poetry, Ozark Lyrics, was published. It contained many of her poems, but not all of them. Employees of the Taney County Library helped choose the poems to be printed, and in return, she donated any profit from the book to the library.
W. E. Freeland was editing the Taney County Republican in 1935 while Mary Elizabeth was writing her column. Country Home Magazine, published by the Crowell Publishing Company in New York, offered an award for the best rural correspondent in the united States and Canada. Since Mr. Freeland appreciated bet writing, he urged Mary Elizabeth to enter the contest. Being modest, she didn't want to enter, but she finally said that if Mr. Freeland would select the articles to send in, it would be all right to enter. Freeland sent in some of her articles. Her contributions were judged against the 1,580 people entered in the contest. At the time of the contest, Mary Elizabeth lived at Oasis, a town with a population of 27 and the Republican had a circulation of 875.
Soon she was notified that she was the winner and received a free trip to New York and Washington, D.C. Her appeal was probably because she could take events happening in a small community and write only the items having a common appeal, getting right to the heart of the news.
While in New York, she met Mayor La Guardia. He presented her with a ship-in-the-bottle, something she had always wanted. She could have met President Franklin Roosevelt if she wanted. However she did meet Al Smith, the Democratic candidate for President against Herbert Hoover, in his office in the Empire State Building and he told her an Irish joke.
Not long after she got home after the trip, Mary Elizabeth was given the title of Poet Laureate of the Ozarks.
In 1947 Mary Elizabeth became very ill with cancer. She spent a week in a Springfield, Missouri, hospital in May of 1948, but returned to her home in Kirbyville. During this period, she was very weak. At times she was too sick to leave her bed, but she continued writing her weekly newspaper column. She died in August at age seventy.
In 1975, Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey was elected to the first Ozark Hall of Fame at the School of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, Missouri. She was among the first six inductees there. Included among the names of the exclusive six were Harold Bell Wright, Thomas Hart Benton and Mae Kennedy McCord.
Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey didn't begin writing poetry until later in her life, about 1930. She said she started writing poetry because all of her children had grown up and left, and she had more time. She loved to give things to people, so she began using what she called "a slight gift," writing poems and giving them away in letters, with a pie or other small items.
Some of her poetry contains a bit of sadness. Possibly, the sadness was due to the loss of her seven year old son. In 1920 a tornado swept through the small community of Melva, Missouri, causing flash flooding. Her son drowned in the flooding. Doug explained, "From then on life changed for the family because he was so dear to all of us. Mother was not particularly a happy person, evidenced by the thread of sadness through so much of her poetry."
Mary Elizabeth's family didn't think too much about her writings. Her husband was busy working to try to make a living. Doug said, "She had a knack for writing, there's no question about that, but we didn't appreciate it when we were growing up and even in our later years, but now we do so much appreciate the talent she had. She could take the most simple little thing like a leaf or tree and make a poem out of it. Her poetry shows her spunk and independence."
Her poetry also reveals the heart of Ozark womanhood.
They come when I am churning
Or when I'm making bread,
Or when I'm hanging out the clothes,
A-dancing 'round my head
Like flocks of yellow butterflies
A-dancing in the sun,
And with clumsy, toil-worn fingers
I try to capture one.
But I mar the gold dust beauty
Of the fragile flut'ring wings.
I cannot capture butterflies
But I love the joyous things.
The everyday living chores, love and family life obviously played a big part in Mary Elizabeth's life. Ail these subjects appeared often in her poetry. Many family poems are reflections back on her childhood and youth. "Two Dresses" was about a girl she knew, for as her son Doug said, "Back in those days, if a girl had a baby out of wedlock, she was always disgraced."
I had three dresses
But now I've got two,
For the plain little white one Trimmed in bright blue
I cut into garments,
So tiny and small.
For my poor little baby A-comin' this fall.
The boy that I worshipped Told me black lies
An' run off an' left me With tears in my eyes.
O, poor little baby
With no name at all, Maybe God will forgive me
And help me this fall.
What if some evening when the stars
And wind-blown clouds were floating
cold and thin,
I'd come for you, as in the distant
With trembling fingers, would you
let me in?
Abashed, amazed, to see the old love
The years of glory, rapture yet to be--
Would you cast his garments down that
you were mending
And close the cabin door to go with me?
She scanned the table with keen old eyes
There was the brown fried chicken
The creamy custard pies
The cool bright green of pickles
And the ruby glow of jell.
Then she hastened to the cellar
Before she rang the bell.
And brought the golden butter
With its drops of frosty dew
Chilled and sweet and delicate
In a deep bowl of old blue.
The finger print experts
Poor things, they never see
Finger prints on corn pones
Granny made for me.
Finger prints on pie crust
Flaky, crisp and light
Precious hands that made them
When days were gay and bright.
Finger prints on window panes
Where some one watched the gate
With troubled wistful anxious eyes
When beloved ones were late.
My black hen talks to me of many things
Cuddling her brood beneath her ragged wings,
Of winged death, and things in the dark wood,
Of love and fear, that throb with
"When I get big I will bring you
A blue silk dress and a ring."
This is the promise he made me
When he was a little thing.
O, the love in that childish promise Made to me long ago
When my hair was bright as sunshine That is now like winter snow.
Still the little feet follow,
Still the little hands cling,
Still I hear the sweet promise:
"A blue silk dress and a ring."
She needed outing flannel gowns--
The children needed shoes
But daddy bought a radio
So they could hear the news.
"A-snowin' in Wisconsin"
"A storm along the coast"
Of all the dial twisters
He seemed to know the most.
Shoes and outing flannel gowns
Are small affairs when he
Can shout out to the neighbors
"They're fightin' cross the sea!"
No one can live all her life in the Ozark hills and hollows and along the streams without being sensitive to beauty. Mary Elizabeth found beauty in routine tasks, while riding side saddle to visit her neighbor, Mrs. Tuttle, or living in an isolated cabin in the woods.
I HAVE FOUND BEAUTY
I have found beauty
In commonplace things,
In a blue gingham apron
With crisply tied strings.
In freshly washed windows,
With checked curtains brief,
In the mottled rose gray
Of a frost-bitten leaf.
Ruby red velvet
In a tiny toad stool;
Silky green plush
In a polliwog pool.
THE ROAD TO TUTTLE'S
As I went up to Tuttle's
I did not go alone
For dear old friends were with me
By every log and stone.
Johnny-Jump-Up hailed me,
And Buttercup so shy,
And from a ferny ledge
Sweet Blue Bell winked her eye.
Bob White then saluted
With call so clear and sweet,
While his little wife went whirring
From the pathway at my feet.
And there was Long Creek singing
In the valley just below;
While the Redbuds and Dogwoods
Waved their banners to and fro.
As I went up to Tuttle's
I did not go alone,
For dear old friends were with me
By every log and stone.
A CABIN IN THE OZARKS
A cabin in the Ozarks
Is the happiest place I know
When the frogs begin their song
And March winds start to blow.
When the dogwood trees are shining
On the hills in robes of white,
Then I hunt my fishing tackle
For'tis now the bluegills bite.
A cabin in the Ozarks
In the summer's dreamy haze
Is where I love to linger,
Loitering through the quiet days.
Now the cornfields are enticing
All the squirrels for miles around,
And I take my old gun with me
Where the frisky folks are found.
When the autumn winds are shifting
And the hills in glory glow,
And the wild ducks start their drifting
And the foxhounds chanting go.
Wild grapes, nuts, pawpaws, persimmons
Hang in Nature's festal hall.
O, a cabin in the Ozarks
Is the finest in the fall.
This cabin in the Ozarks
Has a fireplace deep and wide,
A pot a-stewing on the hearth
And my old dog at my side.
I can see a big wild turkey
In a white oak on the hill
Where the frosty ridge is sparkling
In the moonlight, cold and still.
And I think I'll stop my wanderings
For this place that I have found,
In the blue-hazed Ozark Mountains
Is just right, the whole year 'round.
Many of Mary Elizabeth's poems are based on real people, though she sometimes changed their names. Granny Blake was Granny Howe. Buck Bradshaw actually turned back. Jim Lee was killed at a dance near their store on Long Creek. Dave King and her father rode with the first Bald Knobbers.
There was a narrow one-way bridge across Long Creek by the mill dam. The first wagon on had priority. Others had to wait. Doug said, "One day Mother was watching a gentleman riding his old gray mule with a sack of corn lying across the mule's back. He was coming to the mill and got on the bridge when a big fancy car came up behind him and began to toot its horn. Mother watched it all and wrote the little verse "Priority."
Granny Blake lived all alone
Beside a woodsey hill.
It was a pleasant place to live
So quiet and so still.
A little orchard squandered
Its riches on the grass
And friendly hounds ran out to bay
When any one would pass.
The ducks and turkeys waited
At her mossy kitchen door
To follow if she started
Down to the spring once more.
I never left with empty hands
From happy visits there,
It seemed so little did she have
And yet, so much to spare.
From off a dusty little shelf
She'd take an ancient book.
"Now, this is nigh my granny's age,"
She'd say with piercing look,
"An' I know you'll like to read it,,
It was brung from Tennessee;
An' you can take it home with you,
But bring it back to me."
Then she'd shake her bending peach trees,
And snip her Four o'Clocks
And tie up a bunch of knobby seed
From her gorgeous hollyhocks.
Today I went to Granny Blake's
And stood by her little bed;
Dying, dying, dying,
Was what the doctor said.
She reached her frail old hand to me
And whispered, weak and low:
"I'm mighty proud to see you,
I've been lookin' for you so,
An' wait 'til I am better
An' then we'll go an' see
If my ole turkey hen has hatched
Down by the blackthorn tree."
This was the finest gift of all
The many gifts she gave;
This faith, and hope, and courage,
Although she faced the grave.
WHEN BUCK BRADSHAW TURNED BACK
They all sold out, the Bradshaw clan
And started for to go
Out to that far and distant land
The state of Idaho.
Their loaded trucks soon passed from
Along the Beaver Trail,
But as he watched the jolly crew,
Buck's speed was seen to fail.
For dogwood blooms were flowing
There by the water's blue.
"The suckers are a-shoalin',
I don't know what to do."
"I know Aunt Sue writes nice and fine
Of work an' jobs an' sich.
I know that Pop is all puffed up,
An' says we'll all get rich.
"But Aunt Sue was always that-a-way
No matter what she'd see.
She'd tell it bigger and finer
Than it could ever be.
"I want to grab some suckers,
An' hunt a good bee tree,
For this talk of jobs in Idyho,
Ain't just a-suitin' me.
"Hear that old fox squirrel barkin'?
Say, Wanda, let's go back.
Seems like I've felt all morning,
We was taking the wrong track.
"We'll raise our corn and sorghum,
And lots of other stuff,
For Brown will sell me back my mules,
Or he'll get treated rough."
Buck shifted gears and balked and swore,
Till he got turned around.
And then he hit the back-track trail
For his old "stompin-ground."
The keeper of the village store
Said he thought that he would drop
When Buck's old truck came thundering in
And skidded to a stop.
In haste Buck bought some grab-hooks,
And said with sheepish grin,
"Let'em go on to Idyho
I can live without my kin."
And this same merchant told me
Not so very long ago
Buck had shipped a bail of goods
To his folks in Idaho.
WHEN THEY KILLED JIM LEE
I loved the tales my grandparents told,
When life was wild and free
And in the Ozark Mountains
He rode with Jimmy Lee.
Dearer than a brother
This youngster seemed to be,
And I can't forget the story
And the way he looked at me.
His stern dark eyes so wild and fierce,
His hand clenched on his knee-
''Now listen, boy, 'tis a sorry tale
Of how they killed Jim Lee."
"T'wuz at a dance at Hampton's
We wuz havin' a peck uv fun
When a gang come in from the river
An' thought they would make us run.
Some fool shot out the lanterns--
We fit thar in the dark,
Gals an' wimmen a-screamin'
But none of us missed our mark,
Then, some one ripped the paper
Off'en the cabin wall
An' lit a blaze in the old fireplace Jest as I seed Jim fall.
A tall slim cuss bent over him,
I seed a long knife shine,
But I wuz as quick as the stranger
An' he tuck the blade uv mine.
Jimmy died just about mornin'
Holdin' my hand 'til the end,
An' he grinned when they come to tell us
That down in the river bend
They was makin' a long, long coffin
For one uv the river men."
THE BALD KNOBBERS
Dave King, the unafraid,
And my dad the same,
Found evil crime and trouble
When to these hills they came.
Grim, and sad, and resolute
Through glad or stormy weather
Vigilant and valiant
Rode these two together.
Oath-bound to service
Cold blue steel in leather,
Out to the distant signal fire
Light as a gray hawk's feather
Rode Dave King and my dad
Dave King and my dad
They helped to bring
Peace into these mountains
My dad and old Dave King.
There's a twickety-twock on the bridge
Uncle Andy is coming to mill
On the gray mule, so steady and true,
From over yon side of the hill.
The old gray mule lays back his ears
at the sound of a motor horn,
And a rich powerful car whines down
to a creep
Trailing the mule and the corn.
Serene, undismayed, Uncle Andy rides on,
Secure in his right-of-way.
"Let'em toot, let'em cuss,
I'm furst on the bridge,
An' I'm going' to mill today."
Many of Mary Elizabeth's poems are short cryptic ones, often written spontaneously, the result of some happening or emotion. Such was the case when her son was defeated for prosecuting attorney. She wrote Doug a post card with "A Bitter Cup" on it. One wonders if "Illiterate" wasn't the result of some "high-hat, pompous and stately" person criticizing her work.
A BITTER CUP
Defeat pours a bitter cup,
Grip it tightly and drink it up,
For some friend, kind and true,
Will pour a sweeter drink for you.
Life's fabric has worn thin;
'Tis darned and patched
It has been turned so many
To show the brighter side.
Perhaps sometime, some where, some place,
Beside a distant shining sea,
We may be judged, not as we are,
But as we've tried to be.
He lived on the fruits of After While
A spectral, shadowy tree.
I gathered berries of Now and Here,
Their taste has been sweet to me.
He was a high-hat, pompous and stately.
(In anguish I twisted my apron strings
Wealth and dignity are fearsome things)
Wondering what I should try to say
To this potentate who had come my way.
(Twisting and folding my apron strings
Wealth and dignity are fearsome things.)
Then he stooped to caress my flowering
He smiled at my rose on its cedar cross.
And I dropped my twisted apron strings
For roses and gardens are kindred things.
Illiterate, he? and yet he sees
Wild gnomes, and harps in leafless trees
And pale gold stars bend low to tell
The secret of this strange, bright spell.
Yet, some disdained his lyric song
For meter, verb and tense were wrong.
Mary Elizabeth's poetry obviously reflects the thoughts and feelings of an older person, mature in life's experiences, and though old in body, still young in spirit, still in love with living. She wrote "Farewell" just before her death.
Playthings again on my kitchen floor,
A brave cookey man to make once more.
And the old coffee mill is a wonderful
He hauls it around on a gingham string.
And, resting my cheek on his curls of
I forget I am gray, and heavy and old,
And forget that 'tis "Granny" the
sweet lips say
Instead of the "Mommy" of yesterday.
I started up the mountain
With step so light and free,
But before I reached the fountain
A gray grim shape caught me--
"You'll do no more wild roaming
For I've found you, bound you now."
O, who was this weired monster,
With the hoar frost on his brow,
Who shivered in a palsy,
Who chattered in wild rage?
Then, sick and faint, I realized
I was captured by old age.
I took their gifts and thanked them, Soft slippers, little shawl,
Gray prison bars for wan old age
Not meant for me at all.
For I go dancing with light feet,
A red rose in my hair
While they stand and offer somber gifts Beside my easy chair.
0 life, I wish you were more frowning,
And not so sweet and gay--
For then I would not mind the going,
For I know I cannot stay.
O life, the lovely things you gave me,
Let me love them while I may,
For I know I cannot take them
When I have to go away.
Throughout Mary Elizabeth's poetry the woman speaks out, lovingly, proudly. Hard times, long hours of work, tragedy and premature death were just part of the business of living. "My writings have been the cause of much pleasure, and at times great helpfulness," she said. Was she perhaps encouraging herself to keep going in this poem? Is she the Melancholy Lady?
TO A MELANCHOLY LADY
Raise some guineas
Raise some gourds
Make a little gesture towards
A richer life in service passed
To leave some imprint at the last
If not great deeds
Or golden words
Then raise some guineas
Raise some gourds.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.