From Preservation Issues, Volume 4, Number 2

Sedalia's Founding Mothers: A Tribute

by Virginia Swearingen
When outdoor artist Will Nettleship came to Sedalia as an artist-in-residence in the spring of 1991, he invited a group of citizens to help him find a focus for his project, to interpret what it was that made Sedalia different from other communities, individual and unique. What came out of those discussions of Sedalia's past and present was a surprise even to the participants, for one thing became clear; it was women - generations of strong, energetic, committed women - who formed Sedalia's character.
Photo by Roger Maserang. The Heard Club House, 1906, former home of Lillian Heard. Enjoy a tour, reception, and period fashion show at the Heard House when you attend "A Missouri Classic" in Sedalia April 24-26 [1994].

That women have had a large influence in building and shaping communities all over the country (and perhaps especially in the Midwest) has long been realized. But the role of women in Sedalia's history has been particularly prominent. Sedalia is, in fact, named for a woman - Sarah Smith Cotton. As a small child, Sarah was among the first settlers of Pettis County, arriving in 1831 in a party of 88 family members and slaves headed by her maternal grandfather, Major David Thomson. The Kentuckians established a community in Georgetown, five miles north of present-day Sedalia.

As the county seat, the town grew rapidly through the next two decades and boasted hotels, churches, a newspaper, and even a "female academy," where Sarah and her older sister, Martha Elizabeth, along with the other young ladies of the area, were educated by a teacher imported from Boston. The population grew to more than 3,000.

By the late 1850s, however, it became evident that the railroad snaking westward from St. Louis would bypass Georgetown. Sarah's father, General George Smith, realizing the economic impact rail transportation would have, purchased almost 500 acres south of Georgetown, moved his family from their comfortable home to the open prairie where the rail lines would pass, and platted a town. He called it Sedville after Sarah, whose nickname was "Sed." He mollified his older daughter's jealousy at this honor by reportedly saying, "I once named a flatboat for you, Bet, so now we'll name a town for your sister." Soon thereafter, one of Smith's friends suggested replacing "-ville" with "-alia" (it was more melodic, he opined), and the young town became "Sedalia."

Sed remained a vital force in the community that bore her name. She and her sister gave land for Dunbar (later Hubbard) Park and for the George R. Smith College for Negroes, which operated from 1894 until it burned in 1925. She also donated the site of her family home on Broadway for a new high school, which was completed the year before her death and named Smith-Cotton in her honor.

In 1912, a group of women approached Sed with an innovative project. Sedalia had become an industrial center, and many women were finding employment outside the home. The women saw a need for day care, surely a visionary concept for those days, and were determined to set up a facility to care for the children of these women, as well as orphans. Sed readily donated the first Smith home in Sedalia, a log cabin built in 1861, to this ambitious endeavor. She became a life-long patron of the Melita Day Nursery, named for her mother, Melita Thomson Smith. Descendants of these women still operate the not-for-profit nursery today.

Another woman who left an indelible mark on Sedalia was Jennie Jaynes Lewis. Lewis was the daughter of Col. A.D. Jaynes, one of the founders of what became the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. Although she married and moved to St. Louis in 1896, she always considered Sedalia "home." It was her wish that her own good fortune should benefit Sedalia, and, therefore, established that her estate should be used for "the educational and recreational improvement of the young people" of the community. In 1951, a large, modem stadium was constructed and bears her name - Jennie Jaynes Stadium. Additionally, the residue of her estate, the Jennie Jaynes Foundation, provides grants for many local projects.

One of Jennie's closest friends, May Hawkins Ilgenfritz, was also a major benefactress of Sedalia. The thrust of Ilgenfritz' efforts was toward education, and, to this end, her estate has given college scholarships to three generations of Pettis County young people.

Though much more indirectly, Lillian Heard also had an impact on Sedalia. She and her husband, Congressman John T. Heard, built a large, palatial home on the comer of Broadway and Osage in 1906. Lillian Heard was a member of two women's clubs - Sorosis, a study club, and the Ladies' Musical Society, later the Helen G. Steele Music Club. The activities of these organizations were far-reaching, and included such efforts as the founding of the Sedalia Symphony, intense lobbying for women's facilities and displays at the Missouri State Fair (see Fair, Page 6), spearheading a drive for crippled children's care in central Missouri, and improvement of parks and recreation.

However, by the early 1930s, both clubs had outgrown the various places in which they met around town, and were in danger of dissolving because of lack of meeting space. Lillian Heard died in 1935, and her will donated her lovely home for the use of the two clubs in perpetuity. Today Heard Memorial Club House remains the center of activity for both groups.

In more recent times, the generosity of yet another Sedalia woman materially affected the city's direction. In the early 1950s, the ladies of Sorosis, assisted by many other women, persuaded Bothwell Hospital to establish a special center for the care of crippled children. This fledgling effort grew until, in the early 1970s, its enrollment and activities had outgrown the original small quarters. Virginia Flower, an original board member of the Children's Therapy Center, gave her considerable estate for the construction of a modern, enlarged facility, which today screens and treats over 10,000 patients a year.

These are just a few of the strong, vital and enthusiastic women who have given Sedalia its character. There are hundreds, and possibly thousands, who have worked tirelessly for their neighbors and their community. Thus it is appropriate that Nettleship's artwork -a sidewalk in front of Liberty Center, whose brick and concrete swirls represent the tracks of long skins in the prairie dust - recalls and honors these generations of Sedalia women.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Virginia Stafford Swearingen is a graduate of the University of Missouri, School of Journalism, and a fourth-generation Sedalian. She is Chairman of the Board of the J.A. Lamy Manufacturing Co.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
First electronic edition: 1995
Modified 28 January 2003
Return to the History of Missouri's Women home page.