MY MOTHER – A PIONEER by Frances Zimmer McKillip

The following is a portrait of a homesteader by her daughter, Frances Zimmer MicKillip. Introduction and additional stories are by Carol Abbuhl.

 

My Grandmother, Frances (Zimmer) McKillip, was born on January 1891 at her family’s homestead east of St. Ann in Frontier County Nebraska and was the daughter of Peter L. Zimmer (born in Stuttgart, Germany, 1859) and Christina A Blankenheim Zimmer (born in Iowa in 1862). Her brothers were Arthur (March 1886), Edward (January 1889) and Gregory (December 1894). She was married to Daniel McKillip in January 1913 and they had three daughters: Rita (my mother), Ruth, and Mary Ann.

 

St. Ann’s first church was built in 1887 and a second church was constructed in 1913. In about 1890 the first post office was established and named the Zimmer Post Office after my Great-grandfather. After some years the Zimmer Post Office was discontinued and later reestablished and given the name of St. Ann. It served the community until May 15, 1954. In 1947 the old rectory which had been built in 1907 was moved opposite the St. Ann Post Office. The building was enlarged and improved and called the St. Ann Hall. Today all that is left standing is the St. Ann Church. The following is Grandmother’s account of the little church at St. Ann and her mother.

 

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During the late 1880’s when the Homestead Act opened land in western Nebraska to be settled, a newly married couple, Peter and Christina Zimmer, came west from Iowa. Christina stayed behind at Lawrence, Nebraska, while her husband went on with the railroad car of household items and livestock to establish a home. A two-room house was build before the bride came to southwestern Frontier County.

 

Coming from staunch Catholic families, a home parish and church in the neighborhood was uppermost in their minds. Many other families meanwhile arrived until a homesteader was on most quarter sections, most of them living in dugouts.

 

Peter and Christina petitioned Bishop Bonacum and a parish was organized in 1885. Being nearest the spot where the small church was built, Christina (or Cree as her husband and neighbors nicknamed her) volunteered her small home to house and feed the priest whenever one could come to the new parish. By now she had a small son, Arthur, and every Mass day she would hurry home the half mile walk immediately after Mass, carrying her baby, in order to have dinner ready when Father would come. Cree continued to offer her home to the parish priests and prepare meals and lodging for them for the next 43 years. This new parish was called St. Anne since the first Mass was said on St. Anne’s feast day.

 

Cree and a neighbor kept the small church clean and did the altar linens and vestments for many years.

 

Mother was a woman small in stature but tall in tenacity and energy. She was active in organizing a literary society and a singing school held first in the one room schoolhouse, and later in a Woodman Hall build in the area. Neither of these could she attend often because of babies at home, but her interest was great.

 

Bishop Bonacum once made a surprise visit together with three young priests. When she laughingly told him she was not prepared to serve supper to such eminent guests, what did he do? He bade the young men to help run down three young roosters with us kids helping, and then they also helped prepare the meal. Well, a good time was had by all! The group wanted to stay the night since they had driven horses and a spring wagon the 30 miles from McCook, so the two rooms were prepared for them to sleep, while father, mother, and four youngsters repaired to an empty granary with blankets for the night. Needless to say, we children enjoyed it immensely but probably our parents didn’t enjoy it that much.

 

The family was not without tragedy. The youngest child, Gregory, contracted Scarlet Fever when a few weeks old and was left completely deaf, a tragic blow to any parents. In the late 1890’s farmers in western Nebraska had withstood droughts, hail, and grasshoppers, and many had abandoned their few belongings and land and had gone back east. However, many hardy pioneers remained even though it was hard to eke out a living for a family. For the Zimmers it was hard – they managed to travel to doctors with the small deaf boy but were always disappointed. Now the question of an education for the child came up and no Catholic school for the deaf was found this side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But with God’s help they were able to place Gregory in St. John’s School for the Deaf. For eleven years the trips were made and he learned about his religion and received the Sacraments.

 

My mother died in 1937 at peace with God and herself. Of her it could be said “She dreamed the Impossible Dream” and strove mightily to make it come true.

 

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In addition to the story of Cree the following are some brief remembrances of the Zimmer family. As a child, I had the good fortune of spending a lot of time with my grandparents. I also had the privilege of visiting with my three great uncles from time to time. None of them ever married. Art seemed to be the business man of the family and his only indulgences seemed to be a good Stetson hat, a new car periodically, and an occasional thick steak for dinner. When an oil well was drilled on the Zimmer property, nearly every piece of Art’s clothing as well as the car seat covers had tell-tale signs of the oil. I’m sure that all of the activity around the well as well as the interest of all of the neighbors gave Art a new lease on life.

 

Ed was more carefree and loved to go fishing. He had served in the Navy during World War I and was in France. I don’t remember him every talking about the war except to show me a picture of he and his shipmates. When I was about nine, Ed and my Uncle Don Chambers took me fishing at Wellfleet. Watching a busy youngster didn’t make an ideal day for their fishing but I had fun catching bluegills and drinking orange pop that was kept cold by submerging it in the lake water. Ed died unexpectedly in 1954 so that is about my only memory of him.

 

Since Gregory was deaf, he spent his life, when I knew him, doing the household chores and caring for a few laying hens. At the time I learned a few words in sign language but my Grandmother Frances and Art were very good at that form of communication. Gregory was absolutely ecstatic one day when he and Art had sighted some deer for the first time along the Willow Creek in Hayes County. He could hardly make his fingers move quickly enough to get the story out to Grandma Frances.

 

I think that the brothers never married because they were committed to the farm, caring for a herd of Angus cattle, and being there for my Grandmother Frances and her family. They like all of their friends and neighbors had weathered a lot of hard times with the depression and the dust bowl days of the thirties. Grandfather Dan McKillip was what we would today call physically challenged and the family always had a hired man to help with the farming and livestock. Grandpa helped around the house and could scythe down weeds and grass skillfully and hoe the garden. He couldn’t run machinery or drive a car but give him a tool in his hands and he could work. The family suffered another tragedy when Ruth died of meningitis at age thirteen.

 

In the early part of every week, my great uncles would bring over their laundry for Grandma to do and leave off the Sunday World Herald. Grandma enjoyed the challenge of working the crossword puzzle. I still have a wild flower booklet that has some of the more difficult words written in the margins. By the time she acquired a crossword puzzle dictionary, she knew most of the words. That skill also gave her the edge in Scrabble.

 

These brief descriptions of the Zimmers are told as I remember them in the fifties when I spent a good share of every summer at the McKillip farmstead on the Willow Creek in Hayes County. They, and a good share of the neighbors, were life-long parishioners of St. Ann’s in Frontier County, the church in the story of Cree and her family.