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Preserving Memory of 3 Noted Kansas Women

Charles Hillinger's America

October 19, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

MEDICINE LODGE, Kan. — The memory of three Kansas women who changed the course of history is kept alive in three small towns in this Midwest state.

One woman persuaded Abraham Lincoln to grow a beard, another hacked saloons with hatchets, and the third was the first woman mayor of any town or city in the United States.

Carry Nation, the "loving home defender" who waged war against drinking, is the best known of the trio. She started her campaign with vengeance from a yellow brick home in Medicine Lodge on June 5, 1900.

On that day, wrote the temperance leader in her biography, "I threw myself face down on my bed and offered myself to the Lord to save this country from the evils of alcoholism. I was awakened by a voice saying: 'Go to Kiowa. Go to Kiowa. I'll stand by you.' "

The next day she hitched her horse Prince to a buggy, rode 22 miles south to Kiowa and smashed three saloons with a hatchet. She slashed a path through saloons across the country for the next 12 years, shouting these words as she did so: "They who tarry at the wine cup. They know sorrow. They have woe."

Filled With Memorabilia

Nation's home still stands in Medicine Lodge, population 2,800. For years it was a Women's Christian Temperance Union shrine. Two years ago the WCTU turned over ownership to the town of Medicine Lodge. Today, Nation's home is filled with her memorabilia--hatchets, letters, personal possessions and anti-drinking posters.

Curator of the home is Fern Heublein, 68, who portrays Carry Nation at schools and clubs throughout Kansas. Dressed in an ankle-length black dress, black bonnet, granny glasses and a gold hatchet on a gold chain around her neck, Heublein said she tells "all the good things Carry stood for. She not only smashed whiskey bottles and saloons, she established Sunday schools and several Defender's homes for families of wayward alcoholics."

And like Carry Nation, this modern-day reformer carries a hatchet in her large purse and says she has never had a drink, "nor never will." Heublein has lived in Medicine Lodge from birth, as did her parents and grandparents.

Roger Billings, 75, stood in the town square of Delphos, Kan., population 600, beside a granite monument that pays tribute to his grandmother, Grace Bedell Billings. She lived from 1848 to 1936 and is credited with having persuaded Abraham Lincoln to grow a beard.

"It was one of those spur-of-the-moment things a person will do," her grandson said. "Grandma sat down one day when she was 11 and living in Westfield, N.Y., and dashed off this letter to Abraham Lincoln without telling anyone in her family."

Grace Bedell's father, Norman Bedell, a stove maker, was a zealous supporter of Lincoln when he was running for President. "My grandmother told me that most of the conversation around the dinner table that election year of 1860 centered on Abraham Lincoln and his chances of winning," Billings recalled.

"She said she thought campaign posters look homely so she wrote him a letter in which she asked about his family and said: 'I am a little girl only 11 years old, but I want very much you should be president, so I hope you won't think me very bold to write to such a great man as you are.

'If you let your whiskers grow you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be president. Answer this letter right off. Goodbye. Grace Bedell.' "

The letter was mailed Oct. 15, 1860. Lincoln sent a reply four days later which read:

"My dear little Miss: Your very agreeable letter of the 15th is received. I regret the necessity of saying I have no daughters. I have three sons--one 17, one 9 and one 7 years of age. They, with their mother, constitute my whole family.

"As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now? Yours, very sincere well wishes, A. Lincoln."

Historian William Barton, author of books about the Lincoln years, wrote of the incident: "Almost from the very day of her letter, Lincoln decided he would wear a beard. Perhaps this is as strange a story as can be related of any President that he consented to so radical a change in his personal appearance at the suggestion of a little girl."

On one wall in the den of Roger Billings' home hangs a copy of a story that ran Feb. 16, 1861 in the New York Daily Tribune. Under the headline, "Abe Kisses Pretty Girl," is a story about President Lincoln's journey through Westfield, N.Y. It read in part:

"At the railroad station in Westfield Mr. Lincoln told how he received a letter from an 11-year-old girl in which he was kindly advised to let his whiskers grow. As he acted upon that piece of advice he said he would like to welcome his correspondent if she was in the crowd.

"Grace Bedell made her way to Mr. Lincoln who held her on the platform of the train and kissed her."

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