By Linda Emley
When I walk the halls of the Ray County Museum, I often think about the story behind the treasures I see. I’ve collected antiques for many years, and every time I touch something old, I try to imagine the path it took before it landed in my hands.
I’m one of those people that needs to touch it and see what it feels like.
I love the texture of wood and the cool feel of marble. I love anything old, but my favorite antiques are the ones that belonged to someone I have known and loved. The pillow in this picture is one of those treasures that I love because I knew Bessie.
If I had found this pillow in an antique mall, I would be sad because Bessie’s story would be lost forever. If the price was right, I might have bought it, but I would always wondered who Bessie was.
I’m glad I have this pillow and got to spend 15 years with Bessie. So who was Bessie? Bessie Braden was born June 14, 1885, so she was 6 when this pillow was made in 1891.
I know that sounds amazing, but in the 1890s young girls were trained in such skills at an early age. I don’t know much about her childhood, other than she was an only child. In 1914 she married Irvin Silais Keith and they went to Colorado Springs on their honeymoon.
Bessie and Irvin never had children, but we were like family to her and that is how this pillow came to me. My grandmother, Mildred Kell Schooler, got this pillow from Bess and I got it from my grandmother. I like the idea that is has only traded hands twice in 122 years.
I was 15 when Bess died July 29, 1972, but I have wonderful memories of her. Bess would call my mother and ask if my sister and I could come over for a visit. It was fun to spend time with her and explore her big house full of treasures. She would show us things and tell stories but we were too young to really appreciate it. When I got older, I mowed her yard. She would repay me with a cool drink and a $5 bill.
After Bess died, my grandmother and I visited her grave every Memorial Day. It’s marked by a Japanese peony that is different than normal peonies, so I always pick a flower to take with me.
It was a few years after Bess died before my grandmother told me the rest of the story about our friend. In 1904, some young people from the Hickory Grove community rode the train to St. Louis to attend the World’s Fair.
Young Bess had her eye on Reuben “Mike” Kell, but he was a older and married Lura “Lou” Tabor in 1905. Mike and Lou Kell were my great-grandparents. Bess never had children so my grandmother and her family were like the children that Bess never had. Looking back on my days with Bessie, I now realize that she loved us like family.
I’ve often wondered if Bessie and Irvin had a happy life together. After talking to my family, I think she lived a good life because I’ve heard many happy stories. Irvin was the song leader at Hickory Grove Church and Bessie was always there with him. My mother said that before Bess died, she told her, “Don’t you ever let them tear that building down.”
The only picture I remember of Bess is with my grandmother standing outside the church with their “Sunday” hats on. I haven’t seen that picture for a few years, but it’s forever tucked away in my heart.
My sister said one day Bess let her see her wedding dress and told her that she wanted to be buried in it. That’s a good sign she was happy, but I don’t think she was buried in her wedding dress.
Another clue is that Irvin had a pet name for Bess. He always called her, “Bessie B., my wife, Mrs. Keith.” I’m sure they had some ups and downs like any marriage. My Uncle Elbert said you could always tell when they were fighting because Bess would be sitting in the back seat when they drove by on their way home.
Irvin died in 1951 and Bess had to learn to drive. She got a black 1949 four-door Chrysler that was really hard to shift. Her old car blew away when a tornado hit her farm, but her house still stands on the hill where she once lived.
If you would like to see Bessie’s pillow, you can visit the lobby of the Ray County Courthouse and see it first hand. You will also find some quilting items, Easter treasures and Bess’s doll.
Bess may be gone, but she’ll never be forgotten because I still remember “my neighbor and friend, Bessie B.”
If you have a story for Linda, email her at email@example.com.