A Window on the Past: The Life of Mary Ellen Paine Parsons 1887

Unforgettable Grinnellians

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 am | By Mary Parsons Burkett '48

How did she get to Grinnell?

She was a pioneer child who grew up more than 200 miles from Grinnell, on homesteaded lands in northwest Iowa. Born just as the Civil War was winding down, she was the daughter of people who trekked from New England across a country still largely inhabited by various Indian tribes. In Iowa, the Spirit Lake Massacre had occurred just seven year earlier, fomented by desperate Sioux Indians, disgruntled at the failure of the U.S. government to live up to promises it had made for payment for ceding of the Sioux lands. Like other idealistic New Englanders, her parents followed the path of the "Iowa Band," who crossed the Mississippi and stopped in Davenport to establish Iowa College (which later moved to Grinnell, and adopted the name of the town), which would inspire and enlighten all who would follow after them. They were descendants of the Pilgrims who risked their all to sail to the new world from England to secure freedom of worship and dedication to higher learning.

Iowa had won its statehood in 1846, at about the time railroads were reaching the Mississippi. Prospective settlers traveled from there on to the west by covered wagons pulled by teams of oxen, by horseback, and often on foot, covering agonizing miles of prairie and mosquito-plagued swamps, crossing many rivers and streams. They looked for places where trees dotted the prairie -- trees that could be sawed into logs to build dwellins, create homesteads, and establish settlements. Some stopped in a place they would call Algona, in northwest Iowa.

Back in New England, a Vermonter named Chauncy Taylor dreamed of becoming a missionary in the West, and decided to follow in the steps of the Iowa Band. After securing a commission of $500 a year from the Home Missionary Society, he set out for Fort Dodge pausing en route to consult with James A. Read of the Iowa Band. From there, he went by train and stagecoach to Fort Dodge, and then made his way on foot to the place called Algona. There he found a cluster of eight log cabins near the Des Moines River, and a group of homesteaders who were eager to have a pastor among them as they labored to build their little community. The year was (probably) 1854.

In 1855, James Lawrence Paine and three other hardy souls arrived from Whittinsville, Mass., by stagecoach. Before long, Paine's wife Susan Pierce Horton joined them. Susan was likely from Rhode Island; she was a descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and his wife Mary (for whom our subject, Mary Ellen Paine, was named). Mary's older siblings, Arthur and Emma, were among the first children born in the settlement. Mary was born in 1864, and was followed two years later by a fourth sibling, James Lawrence Jr. Their father, James Lawrence Sr., was a carpenter, and he was contracted by Chauncy Taylor to build a community meeting place to serve as the Congregational Church, the town hall, and the school. Paine became superintendent of the Sunday School, a post he held for the rest of his life. In addition to being a builder, he established a general store for the residents of Algona.

The town hall was first used as a church in 1857. Those hardy New Englanders who settled Algona were not only religious, but also idealistic and cultured individuals. One of the first things Taylor did was to establish a singing school. Some of the settlers had brought with them harmoniums or melodions, and soon money was raised to buy a pump organ for church services. The Protestants (Methodist and Baptist congregations organized before long) frowned on dancing and card playing, so one of the chief pleasures was getting together to sing in their spare time.

The school was set up in the town hall, and eventually classes for Algona College were also held there. Mary must have excelled in her studies, for by the time she was 16, she was employed as a teacher. The money she earned no doubt helped to pay her tuition when she attended Grinnell. The connection of Father Taylor to the Rev. James Read and the Iowa Band was undoubtedly a guiding factor in her decision to enroll at Grinnell.

When she was 20 years old, in the fall of 1883, Mary and a girlfriend boarded the train for Grinnell. The two were known on campus as "the Algona girls." There were not many females in the student body, and they were somewhat separated from their male counterparts. She became a member of a women's group, the Calocagathia Society -- and she also fell in love with Walter Maurice Parsons 1887 from Big Rock, who was a member of the men's social organization, the Crestomathians. They married in October after graduating in 1887, and they settled down in the town of Grinnell. The College hired Walter as its field representative, whose job was to recruit new students.

During those years in Grinnell, Mary bore him four children. The first, little Esther, died before reaching the age of 2. A boy, Mason Paine Parsons, came next; Mason was a twin whose brother was stillborn. In 1894, my father, Arthur Brewster Parsons, came along. He was to follow his parents' example and graduated from Grinnell in 1917. I upheld the tradition by graduating there in 1948.

Before the turn of the century, my grandfather joined the staff of the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association), rising to the position of state secretary. They sent him to California, assigning the whole West Coast as his territory. Mary followed him there and raised their two sons largely on her own, as he frequently traveled in his work. Luckily, she had a lot of support from her oldest brother and three of the Walters, all of whom had succumbed to the lure of the West. Later Walter was posted to Minneapolis, where his territory was Minnesota and southern Canada.

My grandfather's last secretariat was back home in Iowa, so they moved to Des Moines and stayed there for the rest of their lives. Having done all their traveling by trin, they did not own a car until the late 1920s. Mary learned to drive their new Essex when she was in her early 60s.

Des Moines was a welcoming place to live; their college friends, the Rev. James P. Burling and his wife, were in the pastorate of Plymouth Congregational Church, and their son, Temple Burling 1917, became my father's closest friend. Mary maintained a lifetime devotion to the church, and expressed her dedication by being a Sunday School teacher. She also enjoyed being reunited with her childhood classmates, Harvey Ingham (longtime editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune) and Gardner Cowles (founder of the Cowles media empire, which included the Des Moines Register and Tribune and Better Homes and Gardens Magazine).

I knew her, of course, as my grandmother, who loved to tell me stories of her life as a pioneer child growing up in Algona. We would sing together -- among the many songs she taught me was "My Drink is Water Bright," which reflect her ardent membership in WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union). In all the years I knew her, I never heard my grandmother complain, scold, or seem to be in a bad mood. She and my grandfather kept a spare, uncluttered home, in which visitors were always welcome. After he retired, my grandfather shared the household tasks. Although we lived 90 miles away, we were often there. I have been proud to be her namesake, and have tried to live up to the example she set