Stories from the Muddy

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Martha Ellen Syphus

Laura May Gentry wrote a short history of her mother, Martha Ellen Syphus, that I include here.  It gives a good deal of history of St. Thomas, the town that was covered by Lake Mead when Hoover Dam was built:

            My parents were Martha Ellen Syphus and Henry Gentry.  Father was called Harry.  Mother's family came from Leafield, Oxford, England.  She was the fourth child of Luke and Christiana Long Syphus.  The Gentry's came from Essex County in the east of England.

            I want to write a short history of my mother.  While she lived for short periods of time in St. Thomas in the 1880's, she never left Panaca, Nevada with her surviving four children for good, until 1893.  Starting at the age of 18, the intervals were short in which she was not holding some office in the LDS Church, either on a ward level or stake level.

In -----when the Moapa Stake of Zion was organized, she was set apart as Stake Relief Society President in which capacity she served until her death.

            Aunt Julia Whitney and Elizabeth Gibson were her efficient Councilors.  The Relief Society women in those days devoted considerable time to caring for the sick.  When a death occurred, they prepared the body for burial.  If clothes had to be made, which they often did, it was Aunt Julia who made them, for she was a fine seamstress.

Mama seldom missed a General Conference in Salt Lake City.  Her last attendance there, to which I accompanied her, was one of anxiety for me because she was at that time a very sick woman.  Her steps were faltering due to a stroke she had a few months previously.  I helped her to her seat in the Relief Society section of the Tabernacle.  I watched her closely from that vast audience feeling she was attending for the last time.  And so it was.

            Our mother liked people.  She seemed to like responsibility too.  Heaven knows her St. Thomas life was filled with both.  Her interests were varied, in some areas rather intense.  In order I would list them as: Religion, mining, and medicine.  She seized upon such opportunity as she could to learn more about them by studying the scriptures, conversing with a doctor, or consulting with a mining engineer.

Her need was great to learn all she could in the line of medicine for she attended the sick a great deal, in child bearing and contagious diseases.

If she were called during the night, our father would awaken us to the fact at break of day.  We knew we would have more to do in her absence.  Sometimes she was gone for three days.

            There was a tall brown horse called, Salmon, she sometimes rode side-saddle, if the case was a mile or so away and the neighbors had come for her on foot or horseback.  I remember her going the distance of 40 miles in case of an emergency.

            As far as mining, she often had a prospector out telling him to get what supplies he needed from our father's store, the Gentry Store in St. Thomas, Nevada.  Papa might also have his own man out at the same time.  I think these supplies were never kept track of.  This grubstaking practice of theirs paid off better for Mother than Father.

            George D. Hartman, whom she helped grubstake, located what is known as the west end Borax, early in 1921.  It sold for $250,000.00, to be paid off in a year, with a down payment of $50,000.00 in a check written by the buyer, Borax Smith.

            If hitherto mother had not settled her grubstaking score with the store, she did so now with her share of this sale.  She paid off upwards of $5,000.00 to the store's creditors.  Our father was at this time suffering from a heart ailment which claimed his life a few weeks later.

            It might be added, that the day Mr. Hartman returned to report his discovery, Mother already had left for the LDS hospital in Salt Lake City for an operation that kept her there for seven weeks.  Father was now in bed most of the time.  Realizing his condition, she brought her special young and loveable nurse, Flora Birch, home with her to care for Father until his death.  So actually, illness and death left but little room to rejoice over the discovery and sale of Borax.

            Back to the year the Moapa Stake was organized.  One of the first things Mother and her Councilors did was to have a Relief Society hall built.  Cash and labor contributions were made toward this 35 X 70 foot frame building.  To finish paying it off, the Relief Society organization itself, perhaps twice a year, sponsored socials where box lunches and cakes were auctioned off.  Bidding sometimes was forced up to eight or ten dollars by the married men to make a single man pay high for his girl's lunch or cake.

            There was always dancing.  These were really the town's best social affairs, and were well attended.
            This building replaced the big tent for school.  All eight grades were taught here until 1912, when the big cement block school house with the auditorium was built.

            Reiner Hannig ran a motion picture once a week in this hall.  Mr. Hannig went all out for entertainment.  He often had Mrs. Whitmore there to sing, with Mrs. Dee Hickman to accompany her on the piano.  One of my favorite songs was "Pony Boy."

            The children in the auditorium could barely contain themselves, waiting for the picture of the little black boy eating his way into a huge slice of red watermelon that flashed on the screen.  That was worth the 10 cents admission.

            I think our mother enjoyed immensely the visits she, with one of her Councilors, was required to make through out the Moapa Stake.  The communities included Alamo, Caliente, Panaca, Ursine, Bunkerville, and Mesquite.

            Often the trip to Caliente and Panaca was made by train.  Once, however, when it was made by team and buckboard, the date for leaving was planned to coincide with the departure of several of the townsmen who were driving their cattle to Alamo pastures 60 miles from Moapa.  There the cattle were corralled and all stayed the night before leaving at dawn.  Mrs. Elizabeth Gibson was with mother on this trip.  
            They were told to stay just ahead of the herd and at noon to stop where all were to lunch together.  This they did.  The five or six drivers, among them my brother, Sam, asked them upon dismounting at the buckboard and ready to eat, if by any chance they had thought to bring with them any beer from Moapa.  The answer, of course was, "No," whereupon, one of the men, according to plan, rummaged around in the buckboard for a towel, but came up instead with a case of beer they had sneaked in.  Well, the razzing these Relief Society sisters took for having beer along. "I bet you take beer on all your trips," they said, and so on.

            The pressures of pioneer life had long since eased.  Many homes had carbide system lights.  The desert cooler, which was a wire-screened, burlap cupboard which cooled fairly well if the burlap was kept wet, was replaced with an ice box.  Ice had come to the town in plenty with the railroad in 1912--those never to be forgotten clear, cold blocks of ice!  We could have ice cream now.  The chore of keeping butter firm and the milk from souring was gone.  It used to be that the morning's milk would sour by evening, even though it was hung by a cord down the cistern.

            The matchless beauty, when in bloom, of the 30 acre almond orchard, planted in the 1890's on the Wooley, Judd, and Lund land, was now lost to make room for the more lucrative crops of asparagus and cantaloupe.  Mr. William F. Murphy introduced asparagus on the commercial scale about the year 1908.  Both crops were first hauled by team to the railroad at Moapa and later they were loaded into iced cases at St. Thomas.

            Quite a number of new people moved in, family men looking for homes, prospectors and miners looking for riches in the hills.  Gold Butte, in particular, was a favorite destination of these men.  It was now an established mining camp, complete with its Post Office, two saloons, general merchandise store, and tent houses.  And not to be outdone by other boom camps, its killing.  At the nearby camp of Copper City, Jack Ward was shot to death resulting from a dispute over the ownership of the Lincoln mine.

            St. Thomas was fast emerging from the little pioneer community.  In four years, it
 became the terminal of the Moapa Branch Railroad.  No longer would farm produce or copper from the Grand Gulch and Tramp mines have to be hauled the 25 miles to Moapa.  In those days, 3000 head of cattle grazed on the Virgin River.  Those ready for market had to be trailed that extra distance.  The community was becoming a busy, rather exciting one.

            Rough and ready men of the trail had given way to men of a different caliber, among them men of culture.  They came from the east, Denver, and San Francisco with invest-ment money for mineral development.

            With emergence from pioneer life, came the operations of two outlaws whose practice it was to trail dozens of stolen horses from Northern Nevada into Arizona, making St. Thomas one of their stopovers.  Mother so admired a beautiful palomino stallion in one of these bands that Black Jack gave him to her.  For years to come this strain of palomino was in this valley.

            Even the type of amusement was changing.  This it did for certain with the movies.  Before, young people gathered at one another's home to make candy.  They brought mandolins and guitars.  We had one of the few organs in St. Thomas.  My sisters, Nellie and Della both played.  Young people often crowded into our small living room.  They sang songs such as "Old Black Joe," "Way Down Upon the Swanee River," "Where the Silvery Colorado Wends its Way," long into the night.

            It was natural enough for Mother to convert her new home into what had to pass for a hotel.  There had always been others besides our family at our place.  The cloth ceilings in the old home had by now been replaced with regular ceiling lumber.  The tent houses were put up about 1912 or about the time the old U.S. Highway 91 came through Mesquite and Bunkerville into St. Thomas.  It continued on through the Valley of Fire to Las Vegas.

            It might be added here that many of the original homes in this valley had cloth ceilings.  It was the general custom to white wash these ceilings each spring with the local magnasite ore after being dissolved over night in a tub of water.

            To get water into the house, a 50,000 gallon redwood tank had been brought up from the abandoned gold placer operation on the Colorado River at the Temple Bar site.  Upwards of a million dollars of French money had gone into that defunct operation.

            Before the coming of the Highway even, Mother hired a little help, but when the Highway increased her business to 40 or so overnight guests, there were always eight or ten regulars, she kept a cook and helper, a waitress and a laundry woman.  Some nights, the yard would be full of cars, among them, many long since off the market, such as the Stanley Steamer, Marmon, Franklin, etc.

            When in season, most of the fruit and vegetables for her tables came from Whitmore's.  Quail were numerous in the valley.  Often they were on the menu.  It was a busy, busy place.  There was nothing set or staid in mother's charitable nature.  It seems her life was one of progression.

            Looking back, it seems in a sense, fitting that her demise should have been just prior to that of St. Thomas, the town in which she was so active for most of forty years.
She died May 29, 1925.

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