A Brave Spirit: Mary C. Hildreth

Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Originally posted  on Thursday, October 4, 2012 on HCHM’s previous blog site.

When I was working on the exhibit Up the Beaten Path: Following the Chisholm Trail I ran across a short remembrance of the cattle trade in Harvey County that became one of my favorite stories.

Cornie R. (Royston) Reese (Mrs. John C.) recorded a brief story she had been told when she was a young girl growing up in Harvey County.

“The cow boys used to drive the cattle to Newton and let them browse along Sand Creek  while they would go to the gambling houses and saloons.  Mrs.O.B. Hildreth lived upon the hill over looking the cattle crossing of Sand Creek.  She said those roving cattle would devour her garden.  So, one day, she went out on her porch and yelled as loud as she could waving a red table cloth – she stampeded the herd and they ended up in Abilene.”


Mrs. Hildreth had spunk! I wondered what else I could find out about her.

“She came . . . with her baby . . in her arms.”

In the spring of 1870, twenty-seven year old O. B. Hildreth, a Civil War veteran, arrived in Kansas.  He located on a quarter section of land in Darlington township.  A year later, he sent for his wife, Mary.  According to Mary’s obituary, “she came to Newton in April 1871 with her baby Harriet in her arms, to meet her soldier husband.”  Just getting to her new home was an adventure.  The Santa Fe Railroad had not yet completed the line to Newton, so Hildreth met his wife at Cottonwood Falls, “and they came the rest of the way in the covered wagon, camping over night at Peabody.” 

The Hildreth family settled on the claim near Sand Creek (today 400 W 10th). During these early years, Mary “tasted of the loneliness of the pioneer woman to the depths.”   She had her second child, John, in 1873.  O.B. was  busy with the farm and breeding horses.  He was also engaged in the lumber business and laid out additions to the city of Newton.  His 1892 obituary noted that “the evidences of his progressiveness are to be found on every hand.”

Mary C. Hildreth, 1880
In the early years, Mary was busy with family. From the 1880 census, it appears that in addition to the two children, O.B.’s parents also lived with them, as well as two boarders.   In 1892, O.B. died at the age of 49.
10th Street Bridge over Sand Creek, Newton
Postcard, black & white, ca. 1908
Produced by Western Book & Publishing Co., Newton
Postcards of the 10th Street Bridge located near the Hildreth home.
10th Street Bridge, Newton
Postcard, color tinted, ca. 1910
Produced by Western Book & Publishing Co., Newton
10th Street Bridge, Newton
Postcard,  color tinted, 1910

“A Brave Spirit”

Mary was described as “a brave spirit, carrying on thru adversity, courageously and cheerfully, ever being an inspiration to the younger generation.” She was a leader in the community.  The first township election was held at their home and Mary made the ballot box.  As the community grew, Mary was involved in many activities.  “It was in the hospitable home on West Tenth street that many of the finer and better things for the community had their birth and their encouragement” including the organization of Newton’s Free Library and the Newton Flower & Garden Club.  She was a charter member of the Ladies Reading Circle established in 1880.

Ladies Reading Circle, 1880
Charter Members
Seated:  Margaret McKee, Emeline Ashbaugh, Laura Tripp, Louisa Lehaman, Mary Hildreth, Lovina Gilbert
Standing: Mary Cutler, Eva Patterson, Mary McKee, Mary Lynch, Kittie Goss, May Tarrance

The Last Charter Member

In May 1930, Mary was the last original member of the Ladies Reading Circle.  The group honored her at their 50th Annual Meeting.  During the presentation of Mary Hildreth’s portrait, Mrs. Oscar Nelson, President of the Ladies Reading Circle, noted;
“For fifty golden years, she served,
In springtime and in bleak December,
A golden crown of love unswerved,
Shall deck our only chartered member.”
O.B. & Mary Hildreth Home
Constructed in 1878
400 W. 10th, Newton
Photo taken 1990
Mary C. Hildreth died October 28, 1930 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Newton, Kansas.


The Kansan, 8 Dec. 1892; Evening Kansan-Republican, 9 May 1930; Evening Kansan-Republican, 28 October 1930; 1880 Census; Harvey County Historical Museum & Archives Photo Archives; Harvey County Historical Museum & Archives Vertical File.

  1. This is a wonderful Story. What a heritage we have of strong, educated and serving women who lived to build a better world, one town at a time. This spirit reminds me of several women who touched our lives growing up in Newton. Mrs Hassenbank at McKinnley Grade School , Mrs Erma Stewart(Mrs Birch), and Mrs Walter Biersbough To name some is to dimminish the work of so many. But it is with a greatful heart we remember Newton and her people.

“A Woman of Good Moral Character” John Burns Pension

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

On September 7, 1862, the men of the 86th Illinois marched out of the gates of Camp Lyon, through the streets of Peoria with great fanfare to the train depot. There they joined the 85th and boarded the train for Camp Joe Holt, Jefferson, Indiana. Among the men in the 86th was 20 year old John W. Burns. Described as being 5′ 8″ in height with light complexion, dark hair and hazel eyes, John had volunteered a month earlier with the Union army. He listed his  occupation as a farmer.

Six days before he left, on September 1st, 1862, he married Zelpha L. “Lucy” Roberts in front of Justice of the Peace T. Baldwin in Marshall County, Ill.  According to later statements they had known each other since childhood.

Certificate of Record of Marriage, John W. Burns Civil War Pension File.

Three weeks later, John was a part of Col. Daniel McCook’s Brigade pursuing Confederate soldiers. At the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, the 86th Ill suffered their first casualties.

Over the next two and a half years Private John W. Burns was witness to and a participant in numerous battles, including some of the bloodiest fighting in the Western Theatre including the Battles of Chicakauga, Resaca, Rome, Peach Tree Creek  all in Georgia, and Aversborough, N. Carolina. John was also along with Sherman on his infamous “March to the Sea.”

Sherman’s March to the Sea.

Toward the end of the Civil War, John was injured and sent to a hospital near Camp Butler, Springfield, Ill. PVT John W. Burns was discharged on May 2, 1865 and he returned to his home in Marshall County, Ill. He picked up the pieces of his life with his wife and resumed farming. John and Lucy had one child, Herbert H. Burns, born September 21, 1865.

The Burns family came to Harvey County, Ks in 1877 and settled to farm two miles northwest of Sedgwick, Ks.

There are not many clues as to what kind of person John Burns was prior to volunteering for the Union Army, but his time fighting had an affect on him.  By the mid-1880s, Burns began to have difficulties as a result of injuries received during the war including rheumatism.  He also became violent toward his wife, Lucy.

In 1892-3, he applied for a pension. The list of ailments that John Burns suffered from was included in his file. Sunstroke which happened “on or near Marietta, GA, June of 1864”  and resulted in many problems including derangement, vertigo, disease of brain, heart paralysis. Scurvy and rheumatism in the summer of 1864 also caused problems later in life.

John W. Burns List of Afflictions

In March 1893, he began receiving a pension of $30.00 a month “on account of disease of heart and nervous system, result of severe stroke . . . and rheumatism.” 

“Is not Inclined to Take his Incarceration Easily”

January 1, 1899, Lucy left their home in fear for her life in the middle of the night. The story of the abuse endured by Lucy was chronicled in John W. Burns’ Pension File.  Between the documents in the file and the newspaper, a very grim story emerges of the last years of John’s life.

On April 10, 1902,  Burns was judged to be insane. Since Harvey County did not have a facility that could take proper care of him, John stayed at Axtell Hospital where a male nurse was with him constantly. The Evening Kansan Republican concluded that “Mr. Burns is not inclined to take his incarceration easily and at times makes trouble for the attendants.”

At the end of April, he was transferred to the Asylum in Topeka, where he died a short time later on April 26, 1902. His obituary noted that he was one of the earliest settlers of Harvey County, an “old soldier” and “a well known character . . . however in the last years of his life he was afflicted with poor health and under the strain his mind gave way.” (Evening Kansan Republican,  26 April 1902.)

I am the lawful widow of John W. Burns”

As the widow of John Burn, Lucy Burns was eligible to continue to receive his pension. However, she had to have documented proof that she was “the lawful widow of John W. Burns.”

The pension file of John W. Burns tells the tale of a mentally ill man and the abuse endured by his wife.

Lucy Burns, 55 years old, described the events that led her to separate from her husband in 1899.

“My husband, John W. Burns, commenced to abuse and ill treat me some two or three years ago. . . .One night in December 1896, he walks the floor all night long with a flat iron in his hand and he threatens to kill me. He has not supported me for the past fifteen years . . . the night I finally left him was January 1st, 1899, he pounded me with his fist and he threw me out of the house and then locks the door, so that I could not  get in.” 

Mrs. Burns went to a neighbors and did not go back.

“I am the wife of their only son”

Lucy’s daughter in law supported Lucy. Kate Burns, age 31, noted that she had known John and Lucy Burns for thirteen years. She stated;

John W. Burns has been abusive to his wife during the entire time I have known them.  He often beat and pounded her, she has come to my house at midnight, often earlier to escape a beating. He has not supported her since I have known them.  She made a living by taking in sewing. . . He often swore at his wife and struck her in the face and blackened her eyes.  He would frequently pull hand full of hair out of her head. On a number of occasions, he threatened to kill her. His treatment finally became so bad bad she was compelled to leave him for her own safety. ” 

Initially, he kept possession of the house, but later moved to Newton. After he moved to Newton, Lucy returned to the Sedgwick area to be near her son and daughter-in-law. During the time of separation, and even prior, Lucy Burns had provide for herself working as a seamstress.  Witness statements in the pension file noted that the only thing that her husband had provided for her in thirteen years was a cloak.

Family members from Illinois also sent statements.

Statement from William Roberts.

In all the statements Lucy Burns was described as “a woman of good moral character,” who although living separated from her husband for her safety, was his lawful wife.  She never divorced him, or married another. She was deserving of the widows pension.

Lucy Burns died 14 November 1915 at the age of 72.

Sedgwick Pantagraph, 18 November 1915

The Old Soldier

John Burns was not alone among Civil War veterans from suffering lingering effects of what he saw and did during the war. Witness statements from people that knew him and his wife since childhood do not hint at violent behavior prior to the mid 1880s.  So what caused John Burns to become an abusive husband.

Some Civil War historians have looked into the idea that some of these men may have suffered from what  today is labeled PTSD. In the early 20th century, however, men with suffering from PTSD were diagnosed  with derangement, a feeble mind, insane. How to care for them was a complete unknown other than to send them  to a hospital that could handle the insane.

Burns was  not the only Civil War Veteran to be declared insane. One historian, Eric Dean studied admissions to the Indiana Hospital for the Insane and discovered 291 Civil War veterans were admitted many with violent and erratic behavior or acute panic attacks and  suicidal thoughts. Dean attributed this to the trauma experienced either in battle or in prisons. For many “old soldiers” of the Civil War, it never quite ended. Even though he returned physically, John W. Burns’ emotional injuries took a toll on both himself and his family in later years.


  • Burns, John W. File. The John C. Johnston Collection of Civil War Pensions, HCHM Archives.
  • Evening Kansan Republican: 24 April 1902, 25 April 1902, 26 April 1902.
  • Sedgwick Pantagraph: 18 November 1915.
  • Information on John W. Burns’ Civil War Record courtesy Baxter B. Fite III on Find A Grave and via e-mail with author.
  • Horwitz, Tony. “Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD?” Smithsonian Magazine January 2015.

This blog post is part of a Heritage Grant from Humanities Kansas to digitize the John C. Johnston Civil War Pension Collection. As part of the project HCHM, seeks to tell the stories of these men and their families.

Humanities Kansas is an independent nonprofit spearheading a movement of ideas to
empower the people of Kansas to strengthen their communities and our democracy. Since
1972, our pioneering programming, grants, and partnerships have documented and shared
stories to spark conversations and generate insights. Together with our partners and
supporters, we inspire all Kansans to draw on history, literature, ethics, and culture to enrich their
lives and serve the communities and state we all proudly call home. Visit humanitieskansas.org.

The Sears Pig

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

History is full of tiny, yet interesting stories.  Such is the case of the “Sears Pig.” Recently, I gave a presentation in partnership with the Newton Public Library, Tales & Tails: Usual & the Unusual Pets. One 4-H photo featured a young woman with her Sears Pig Project. I had not had time to research this, so I asked if anyone knew about this project. The next day I had some good answers from friends listening to the program.

Sears-Roebuck 4-H Pig Projects

The “Sears Pig” was part of unique program was popular in the 1940s-60s often known as a “livestock chain.”  4-H and FFA Clubs were active participants in the educational program. The Sears-Roebuck Plan selected ten 4-H Club members in a county who were given purebred pigs. They raised and bred the animals and gave one pig from their first litter to the organization. The ten animals given to the county agricultural agent would then be placed with ten more student participants.

They also participated in county showing and judging events with small cash prizes.

This enabled the young people to build their own stock.

Mary Ann Covalt with Sears Pig, 4-H, 1950s Ellen Samuelson Collection

Although support for these programs came from several sources, the most notable was the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. Sears provided animals and funding to support the livestock chains throughout the country. At one point Sears had 1,253 swine programs in operation all across the country.

There were also other livestock chains including poultry, dairy calf, beef heifer, and bull chains.


  • The Friday Footnote: Livestock Chains (5/3/2019) https://footnote.wordpress.ncsu.edu/
  • Hurford, David D. “The Sears-Roebuck Foundation: A business history of the Sears, Roebuck public relations program, 1950-1960.” Master’s Thesis, Business Administration, 1962. University of Southern California. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/digital/collection/p15799coll26/id/310268