The Women Who Made Me


It seems anymore there is a day, week or month for just about everything. Today is International Women’s Day. This week is Women in Construction Week. March is Women’s History Month. I’ve never been a very good feminist. I was fortunate to be raised in a family and a community where I did not feel disadvantaged because of my gender, and while I know that this isn’t true for nearly all women, I can’t and don’t own that reality. With all the posts and things I’ve seen today, I’ve been thinking about the historical women in my own life that created my reality – one where women were strong, capable, and educated.

I’ve also recently been reading and reflecting on a book that my great-uncle Merle Caldwell wrote in 1997 about his youth that he titled Growing Up on the Farm in the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve had my grandma’s copy of it for several years, and last fall I finished typing it up to have a digital version (my great-aunt typed the original on a typewriter and made photo copies, I believe). Family – I promise to get it shared with you soon (that was, after all, the goal of typing it). I like re-reading the stories Merle tells. They make me feel connected to those pieces of family history, and the strength and character that those ancestors consistently displayed. I’ve also been mulling around the idea of sharing pieces of the farming stories as sort of a Then and Now series on this blog as we approach our spring planting season.

Today I thought I would share a few excerpts about Merle’s mother, my great-grandmother, Beulah Pickinpaugh Caldwell. Grandma Caldwell died when I was just barely 5, so my memories of her are vague. The one that comes to mind is of visiting her at the nursing home, but what I actually remember is being in the car with my grandparents anxiously anticipating my grandpa’s fudge that we had brought to share. I’m not certain, but I believe it was a Sunday after church, and my cousins were also there. It’s a very distant memory, and I’m not sure it’s even acurate, but there you have it.

Here’s what Merle had to say:

I will include a little of Mom’s history, too:

Her parents, Marion Pickenpaugh (1860 to 1941) and Julia Amanda Dunlevy (1862 to 1958) were married in Schuyler County March 2, 1887. They shortly went to Colorado where they homesteaded 320 acres in Kit Carson County on the Plains of Colorado not far West of Kansas. They built a two room Sod House with walls 3 feet thick. They lived here 8 years and their first three children were born. My mother, Beulah was the third child and born in 1894. Mom’s brother Guy was also born in the Sod House. Many years later, he was on a trip west and visited a Sod House on display. He returned with a certificate for each of them stating they were “Sodies” being born in a Sod House. When Mom was two, they moved back to Illinois and lived in Crooked Creek bottom near Camden in a two-room shack. In 1899 they were flooded out and moved about on emile North up the hill where they bought a farm and built a new two-story 4 bedroom home in 1902.

In all they had eight children, one dying at 16 months and the rest living to adulthood. Mom lived there with her family and after Grade school went to Macomb to Western Academy. To get there, someone had to take her to LIttleton with horse and buggy, what must have been six or eight miles. Then she got on the M, I and L (Macomb, Industry and Littleton) train and rode to Macomb.

Merle goes on to tell about Union Grove School, the one room school near the farm he was raised on, and it’s role in the community before continuting his mom’s history….

Mom went to school in Macomb and began teaching. I am about sure she taught a few years before but in the school year 1915/16, she taught at Union Grove. She stayed the first house West of there, just 1/2 mile with Dad’s brother Ross. That was when they met and began their courtship…When they married, Dad’s folks built a new house in Industry and moved there and Mom and Dad stayed on the farm where he had lived all his life.

Merle included more details of the time during their courtship from diary entries including my great-grandfather’s service in the Army in 1918 and 1919, but that’s not relevant here. What I wanted to focus on tonight is that in the early 1900s my great-grandmother (one of seven children) took a horse and buggy and a train to attend a teacher’s college, and that frankly, that is just one small example of countless hard things she did. The majority of the book is the telling of her life, through her son’s eyes, raising her six children on a farm in rural Illinois through the Great Depression. I know from reading it that she was incredible because as I interpret it, they were poor, and they struggled, but they did not suffer. That is undoubtedly a credit to her and my great-grandpa both.

Women in my family, on both sides, have a history of living long, full lives. They were educated, they worked, they raised families, and they were (and are) independent and opinionated. I can only hope to continue that legacy. Thank you to all the women who made me – my great-grandmas, grandmas, and my mom – for doing hard things so that I could grow up and never feel less-than because I’m a woman.

Side Note (Updated): My mom had a labeled copy of this photo. That it is the house Merle and my grandpa grew up in, but the photo is a generation prior. The youngest boy is their father Harold. The remaining people are Harold’s brothers Ross and John, Ross’s wife Nell, sisters Effie and Florence, and his parents (my great-great grandparents) Jennie and James Caldwell. Jennie was raised on that farm which she and James later purchased from her estranged father, Mathias. I am not named after her, but ironically, she and I do share a birthday.

From Merle’s book:

Jennie taught school 4 years before she married.  James Caldwell, who was my Grandfather, farmed with his dad until age 21, then on his own one year.  In 1873-74 he made a trip to California where he worked in a logging camp.  Nothing could be found of this experience of his.  Returning home, he continued to farm rented land.  In 1878, Daniel, James’ father died.  His wife preceded him in death two years.  That same year James Caldwell and Jennie Horton were married…In 1883, James began buying land and in 10 years time he had 280 acres all in one tract, which included the 40 acres Jennie was raised on.  He then built a new frame house just south of Jennie’s childhood home.  Florence, their third living child, born in 1888 was the first child born in the new house.  Then one more daughter and two sons were born to them.  My Dad, Harold was born in 1895 and was the youngest child.

3 thoughts on “The Women Who Made Me

  1. Jennifer.
    Love your article. Glad you are enjoying Dad’s book. I have a couple of farm stories I have written. May try to send you one sometime. Also, My Dad”s cousin, Francis Caldwell was a writer. Mostly he wrote about commercial fishing. He was Ross’s son.
    Rodney Caldwell

    1. Thank you, Rodney. I think I got the writing bug honestly! I do also have a story written by Francis about the 1934 Blizzard that was stuck in the back of this copy of the book. It includes a great photo of your dad, Ernest and Francis (and other students) at the old school.

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