Volume 32, Number 2, Winter 1993
Helen Julia Fletcher, one of Taney Countys most memorable residents, died December 12 at the age of 96 plus. Those fortunate enough to have known her will remember a charming, gracious lady with a smile on her face and a humorous glint in her eyes. Historians will recognize her as a kindred spirit who worked constantly gathering information about this area and its inhabitants, much of which she put into her library of scrapbooks and file cabinets. She also retained this in her own memory and was a source of instant knowledge on practically everythingand everyone in Stone and Taney counties as well as the surrounding region.
She was born in Buffalo, New York. Her parents divorced when she was five and she went with her mother to Idaho where her grandfather operated a lumber mill. She rode horseback to school, taking care of her own pony and helping with the chores. She learned to stand on her own two feet very early; her mother died when she was twelve. She was to have gone to Maryland to live with her fatherwhom she hadnt seen since she was five. Hed wired a ticket but when she went to board the train, was told the ticket had been cancelled. However, at her aunts insistence, she proceeded alone only to find at the destination that her father, a railroad worker, had been killed in an accident. She returned to Idaho, living with the aunt and in due time, enrolling in secretarial school to prepare herself for a business career.
Music was an important part of her life and she was blessed with an outstanding voice. While singing in the church choir she met a young printer and soon became Mrs. Rockwell Fletcher.
In 1921 Rockwell decided to come to Missouri to check out the possibilities for advancement, leaving her behind until he secured a position. He went to Aurora "an up and coming town with paved streets" to which she looked forward as her future homeuntil he decided on another town some 75 miles to the south and east. "Sell everything and come down," he wrote. When she arrived and asked why the change of plans, he said he thought Branson had "potential" and had bought the White River Leader from newspaper publisher Hoenshel. It was located on the site of the present Branson Cafe on Main Street and had apparently not been in operation long for there was equipment in boxes not yet unpacked. Before long they were able to buy the property next door and lived beside the newspaper office.
Even with a home and family to care for, Helen managed to become an important part of the newspaper, doing office work and the hundreds of small details of the business day. She did as much as her husband, perhaps more for she gathered the news, sifted and wrote itbeautifully. There were great stories breaking thenfloods and politics, the capture of outlaw Jake Fleagle, the rise of the School of the Ozarks and the onset of tourism. Hollister was her "beat" and she took the train to work; there was no other way across the lake.
Her love of music and literature was a great part of her life and daughter, Roxie (who along with brother, Verne was born here), recalls her mother standing at the ironing board doing the weekly chore while reciting the complete poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee."
Through the years she was active in every cul-
tural undertaking. She played the violin and viola, was vocalist of the church choir and involved in all phases of the Presbyterian Church, twice serving as president of the Lafayette Presbytery, superintendent of the Sunday School and chairman of the Ladies Circle. She served as a Pink Lady and was president of Skaggs Community Hospital Auxiliary. She was, as well, a president of the Branson PTA; two-term president of the White River Valley Historical Society; long-time member of the Taneycomo Chapter, DAR; a Missouri state president, Worthy Matron and 50-year member of OES, Chapter 239 of Branson; and member of the Civic League of Women Voters. She manned the Democratic Headquarters behind what was Mans Land in the 30s, her lapels covered with political buttons and was responsible for the citys ownership of the Old Branson School Park.
Her children recall she was forever staging programs and pageants involving them in everything she did. There was no resistancethey wanted to be "as smart as she was."
She saw to it that her offspring got a good taste of "culture," taking them to hear Madame Chiang Kaischek and Eleanor Roosevelt. She also journeyed to Fulton to hear Winston Churchills famous address.
There were hundreds of stories connected with her life and career. One of the most poignant concerned a contributing writer to the paper who lived far back in the hills but each week faithfully sent her handwritten columna conglomeration of stories, poems, historical materialwhatever. At any rate, the columns suddenly stopped coming and the response from readers was an avalanche of protest. So Helen and Rockwell decided to drive out to see her, and to reinstate it. The drive was quite an experiencethe roads of those times were deplorable. When they finally located her, the woman said she had ceased writing because the pain of gripping a pencil in her arthritic fingers was unbearable. She had to give up her career.
The Fletchers felt she was too important to the papers audience to lose and offered to buy a typewriterif that would take care of things. She didand IT did. The columns continued and the writer went on to receive a national award as the best rural correspondent in the country. She was Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey.
In 1936 Rockwell sold the paper to Mr. Forest Runyon. The couple went to Chicago but returned in the late 50s to set up a printing business which he operated until his death in 1961.
Helen was my friend and our paths crossed often and in numerous ways. We had many of the same interestsknew many of the same persons. She told me some wonderful stories, shared viewpoints and, because of her I saw this world of the hill people through a door that only someone with her astute insight and compassion could open.
I never knew her to err in judgementalthough at one time I seriously questioned. That was when she told me she and her husband had bought their retirement property believing it would one day be in the center of a big developmentthat the town would grow to it. At that time it was the end of a winding trail that wound westward from town.
Well, I was wrong. She sold that fifteen acres in 1969 and it became the site of Holiday Inn and she felt vindicated. She lived to see much more development than she would have wanted: the Branson Strip!
I will never forget her. Not only for the impact she made herethe void she leftbut the tremendous influence she unknowingly used to better my life.
Not only these things but the personal aspect as well. She shared the same birthday with my late sister and my granddaughter. She was, as well, a descendent of a Pennsylvania Yankee named Jacob Hartman!
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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