Susan Elizabeth Peabody was born to Aaron Filmore and Susan Isabelle (Shelby) Peabody on June 17, 1883 in either Missouri or Kansas. My mother made reference to Doniphan, KS as Grammy's birthplace but I was never able to substantiate that the Peabody family was ever there.
Susie's childhood was a happy one, growing up in Gentry, Arkansas. Her mother was one of those women who had all the skills necessary for heading up a well-run home. She knitted, crocheted, made soap, and all those other things women were taught to do in those days. But Susie was "a Tomboy" who preferred to be outside, climbing rocks, wading through streams, looking at stars in the night. Had the opportunity been available to her, she might have been a Girl Scout. She never really learned how to cook, sew, knit or crochet. Her family boarded the local teacher, and the teacher paid for that boarding by teaching all the children how to play the violin, a skill that would be useful for many years to come for Susie. There were many evenings when the family would make music together. Susie loved to sing and dance, as well.
Susie changed her destiny when she married Martin VanBuren Britt in Willow Springs, MO on November 26, 1902.
Except for census information and other documented facts, almost all the information I have about Martin VanBuren Britt, and Susie's life with him, came from my mother, Aldine Mary (Britt) Serl, their eldest child to survive childhood.
Martin VanBuren Britt was not an educated man. The Peabody family believed in education and the fact that he was not educated was probably enough to make Susie's family think that he was probably not the best choice for a husband that Susie could make. He was rough in his language and had very few social skills. My mother said that Susie had once told her that some of the girls she knew had said, "You're just like a little butterfly, flitting amongst all the flowers, only to fall on your face into a cowpie."
The truth about Martin VanBuren Britt, "Van", as he was called, was that, by the age of twenty, he had already had a very hard life.
Van was born May 26, 1882 in Hutton Valley, Missouri, to Martin VanBuren Britt, Sr., and Rutha Morrow. Rutha died somewhere around that time and I think it is possible she might've died during childbirth, which might explain the treatment Van received from his family as a child. Or maybe it was that it was just a rough hill family and they all grew up that way. Van's older siblings were John Barnett, Asalee Prudence, Laura A., and Thomas Perry. I've traced this family back as far as John Britt and Mary Grant Ford, married in 1805, possibly in Tennessee, Mary Grant Ford was the daughter of Lloyd Ford and Mary Grant, both of whom were born in Baltimore County MD and died in Washington County, TN.
Van's father married again, after Rutha's death, to a woman whose husband had died, leaving her several children to raise by herself. According to my mother, Van's father took more of an interest in his new wife's children than his own, and Van, along with a brother named Tom, who was four years older, were raised by the oldest brother and sister. They were beaten by that oldest brother. He threw Van in the river during early spring one year, supposedly as a way to teach Van to swim, and then just walked away. Of course this is all Van's account of his early life, and therefore may be just heresay. He did manage to reach the water's edge. The water was cold and he came down with Rheumatic Fever afterward and nearly died. He was troubled with rheumatism all the rest of his life, which he said was the result of that illness.
Van told my mother that his father drank, and was not a steady worker. Van and his brothers worked for an uncle who cleared land for others. At some point they began following the harvest, starting in the west where grain ripens first, and going east. Tom ran away from home to escape another beating at the hands of that oldest brother and Van did so as well, as soon as he was old enough.
I've never been able to find much information on Van's mother. I have never found a marriage record. My mother told me her last name was Morrow, and I saw her with Martin VanBuren, Sr. on 1870 census in Kelley Twp, Ripley Co., MO, as Rutha, age 26, born MO, and on the 1880 census in Howell County, MO, as Ruthy, age 35. I was never able to find her grave. My mother told me that Ruth was 1/4 American Indian and I did run into someone during my research who said that Ruth's mother was named Neoma and Neoma's mother was full-blood Shawnee, and that her father had been a white fur trader. I did find William and Neoma Morrow on 1850 census and they did have a six-year-old child named Rutha, but I'm not sure if there is really any valid connection at all. I found them again in 1860 and Rutha was not with them. Martin VanBuren Britt was single and with his birth family that year. It's possible, her being 16, that she was hired out somewhere and didn't get counted. Or that could be someone totally different, who may have died between those census years. I just don't know. I report it here because maybe someone will read this someday who has documented facts.
After Van and Susie were married, Van made his living in many ways. He would buy a string of horses and the family would travel from place to place in a covered wagon, trading those horses for whatever Van could use or resell at a profit. At night they would camp wherever they happened to be. When winter began, they would rent a house wherever they were and put the kids in school. It is impossible to guess where the children were born, because they were always on the move. Susie’s obit says they came to Kansas in 1906, locating near Council Grove. Van’s obit says it was in 1908, and I would trust Van’s more than Susie’s because he died first and that information in his obit would’ve been given by Susie, rather than by one of the children, and her memory was very much intact at the time of Van's death. Where the twins and Ruth are buried is anybody’s guess, but I know that they were staying at a campsite on the edge of Iola, KS at the time of the stillbirth of the twins.
Ruthie died of spinal meningitis, a painful way to go. My mother said she remembered hearing Ruthie cry at night. I don't know how old she was at the time. The story of Edgar and Allen’s deaths according to my mother, and substantiated by an account in the Iola, KS newspaper, is that they had just come into Iola off a “trip”. Van's brother, Tom, made his home in Iola, and his boys came in off the farm to visit them. They were “exploring” as boys of that age did. They came upon a pit filled with water near the “acid works”. The weather was hot, and Edgar wanted to go in and wade. They all told him not to, but Edgar was “a stubborn little Britt” and went in anyway, stepped into a hole and went under. Allen went in to try to save him. Neither boy knew how to swim. Tom’s boys ran for help; a member of the Dalton family, possibly Talbert Dalton, pulled the boys out of the water. Susie was summoned to the site, my mother, then only five years old, was with her. Edgar had died in the water. Allen was throwing up, his lungs were rattling. He managed to tell his mother he was sorry he couldn’t save his brother, and died a day later. Mom said it was not the water, but the chemicals in it that caused their deaths. She remembered that their caskets had glass tops, and she thought they looked like grown-up men in their caskets. They were eight and ten years old. Susie would never cry in public and she remembered watching her struggle to hold everything back during the funeral. Edgar and Allen were buried in the Highland Cemetery in Iola, 29JUL1916, unmarked.
The deaths of Edgar and Allen took much of the wanderlust out of Van. He traded a Model T and some “boot” for a little house on East Street in Iola. Evelyn was born there. Mom went to first grade at McKinley at the age of 8. Van would give her a nickel every day so that she could stop at Foster’s and buy cookies. Sometimes they went to the Airdrome in Iola where they saw comedians, or dancers, etc. Elizabeth was born in January of 1920, and the following spring Van traded the house in town and some “boot” for a house and some land north of LaHarpe. Mom said she and Marjorie spent the whole summer playing on that farm, and that she was happier there than at any other time of her life.
In the fall she and Marjorie started school at the Spring Branch country school. They loved their school and their teacher, and enjoyed their first Christmas party there. Van usually had a Model T to drive, and it didn’t have enough power to get up a hill unless you “took a run at it”, which Van loved to do. He would race anyone that wanted to, and usually won. He chewed tobacco and spat out the side. The girls sitting in the back would have be alert for that. They stayed on the farm for one year. Then Van sold out and moved his family into LaHarpe. Mom said she nearly died of diphtheria that winter. You can imagine the panic they must’ve felt after having already lost the first five of their children. They were always afraid of being poisoned. They believed potato peelings were poisonous and forbade the children to eat them. Marjorie was once caught hiding behind the door eating potato peelings! Every time Susie opened a jar or can, she had to take it to Van for inspection. If he didn’t think it smelled or looked right, he’d make her throw it out.
At some point Van worked at the roundhouse, where trains would be worked on. He was a stand-by fireman on the train. He told my dad that sometimes he would get in off one run and they’d call him right out for another. Another time he ran a livery stable. At one time he had a pair of matching work horses of which he was very proud. He would sometimes go out to farms and buy all their junk, salvaging that which his family could use and that which he could sell, then he would sell the rest to the junkyard. Mom said a lot of times they got some really good stuff that way. He was also a horse-trader, and not a very honest one at that. He would buy broken-down horses at the sale and then “doctor them up” so that they looked younger, healthier than they were, and sell them at a profit to an unsuspecting buyer. He would also buy pieces of furniture to resell, and sometimes an old pickup truck. He would paint the truck red, build a wooden stock frame to fit over the truck bed, and get it running well enough to sell. He always managed the money of the household, he did the grocery shopping and Susie cooked whatever he brought home.
When Van went to town he would always come home drunk, and then he would yell at Susie and hit her for all the things she had done during the week. He effectively isolated Susie from her parents and siblings, saying it was punishment for something she had done. Dorothy Peabody Hall said that for some reason Van did not get along with Barney Monger, who was the first husband of Susie’s sister Gertie. Although they lived not far away at Pittsburg, KS, Susie was not allowed to visit her sister Gertie and Gertie was not allowed to come visit Susie. Dorothy said that Gertie wanted badly to come with them once when they all went to visit Susie, but that they all thought it would not be safe for Susie. They knew that she was mistreated after they left.
Often Van would use mealtimes to deal with all the problems of the day, scold the children until they could not eat, and make them sit there until they did. Once he pulled his chair under him to sit down “with authority”, the chair gave way and he landed on a coffee can that happened to be under his chair. There was no damage except to the chair, the can and his pride, but no one dared to laugh. It was a spectacle that would bring them all chuckles in private for years to come. Poking fun at Van behind his back to his children was how Susie salvaged her pride.
In spite of the fact that my mother saw Van being abusive to Susie on many occasions, she has happy memories of her own relationship with him. He would always read the funnies to her, and he was not a very good reader. Mom was a smart, confident little girl. Before the first grade she could spell and say her ABC’s and numbers, which was unusual for a child that age back then. Van always had silver dollars in his pocket that she would stack while she sat on his lap for “hours at a time”, and she always felt he favored her over the other girls. Van loved his daughters and he loved his grandchildren. Maybe he mistreated Grammy because that's all he knew. I don't know. I often think how conflicted my mother must've been, trying to love both parents at the same time. She adored her mother and hated the things Van did and said to Susie, and until she got old enough to intervene, she was helpless to do anything but watch. Those experiences molded her opinions about relationships, and she told me once that she determined that if anyone was going to be the boss when she was old enough to have a family of her own, it was going to be her. And she lived that plan out till the day her health broke and she was hospitalized. My dad would never have subjected her to the things she saw happen between her parents, he just wasn't like that. So there was no need. She bullied everyone and paid a high price for it.
When Mom was twelve, people started inviting Van and Susie to dances they would have in their homes or barns. Susie played the violin by ear, and Mom knew how to play the piano by ear, so they were in demand as “relief players” and could play any music requested without sheet music. It was at one of those dances that my mom met my dad. Van was not a good dancer, but he would dance with some of the ladies. Susie loved to dance, and even in her later years would demonstrate the Charleston or the Schottische on request. We requested often, because she found such joy in it, and we loved to see that.
Van and Susie were found on the Grant Twp., Neosho County, KS census, taken April 19-24, 1930. Van, or "Martin B.", as he is listed, is 45, a farmer, who was 20 at his marriage. Wife Susie E. is 44, was age 19 at her marriage. With them are children Marjorie I, age 16, born AR; Evelyn G., age 12, born KS; Elizabeth H., age 10, born KS. Mom was already married, but I couldn't find her and Dad on the census under "Serl".
According to a city directory, Van and Susie lived in Savonburg, KS, April 1946.
In 1954, we moved from Kansas to Oklahoma, 200 miles away. It was hard for my mother because she was so very close to her mother. I often think Grammy was the glue with which my mother held it together. They wrote long letters to each other to try to bridge the gap, and every letter received at our house from Grammy was an event. Her letters were so fun to read. Every other week, we would drive to Kansas, would eat at Gram and Gramps' house in Chanute, and then stop by Dad's mother's (Grandma's) house in Iola on the way home.
Once in awhile, beginning in the late 1950's, Susie and Van would take the bus to Copan, OK, and stay with us. They would never stay any longer than three days. I remember the bus would go past our house on the way to the bus stop, so I would eagerly walk up to meet them. They’d already be about half-way by the time I got to them, walking arm-in-arm. Van had a way of sticking out his lower lip and jerking his head backwards in acknowledgment, and he would do this as soon as our eyes met. I don’t ever remember him talking very much at all, and I think this is the closest I ever saw him come to a smile. They would dress up as nice as they could to make that bus trip. He usually wore a navy blue pin-stripe suit and his cream-colored hat. The suit was purchased at a rummage sale and stored carefully in mothballs for such events as this. Susie would wear a nice dress and sometimes a shawl, and usually some kind of sandal with a strap across her ankle. That was 50 years ago. Yet, if I close my eyes, I can still see them this way, walking towards our house, smiling at me coming towards them, Susie leaning on him as if for support, him providing his arm as if for protection, with their suitcase in his other hand. They looked happy. They looked like they loved each other. I wish I'd been able to get a picture of that. This picture was taken in front of their house.
From the Chanute, KS paper, 11Apr1962:
"Martin (Van) Britt, 79, 817 N. Evergreen, died this morning at his home. He had been in failing health.
"He was born May 26, 1882, to Martin V. and Ruth Britt at Huton Valley, Howell County, Missouri. He married Susie Peabody Nov. 26, 1902, and they came to Kansas in 1908 locating on a farm near Council Grove.
They came to Chanute about seven years ago.
"Survivors are his wife, four daughters, Mrs. C. C. (Aldine) Serl, Copan, OK, Mrs. Howard H. (Marjorie) Hockett, 903 N. Santa Fe, Mrs. Claud (Evelyn) Camp, R. 3, Mrs. Ben (Elizabeth) Cooper, Onawa, IA, 13 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
"The funeral arrangements are incomplete and will be announced by the Roy S. Gibson Funeral Home."
(He had been standing in his yard, watching a neighbor, who was tilling a garden plot. He was eating a biscuit, the last of his breakfast. Susie saw him there from the kitchen window as she cleaned up the breakfast dishes. The next time she looked out the window, he was face down on the ground. He often ate too fast and choked on his food, and Mom always believed he choked to death on that biscuit, unseen by anyone who could help him.)
After Van died, Susie suddenly had more freedom than she had ever experienced before. She came on the bus alone to see us. She had plans to go and visit what was left of her family. But Susie was diagnosed with liver cancer within the year. She spent the last part of her life in a hospital bed at her daughter Evelyn's house. Evelyn cared for her until her death.
From the Chanute, KS paper, 21Dec1962:
"Mrs. Susan Elizabeth Britt, 79, 817 N. Evergreen, died Thursday at the home of her daughter, Mrs. Claude Camp, rural Chanute, following a short illness.
"She was born June 17, 1883, in Donovan County, MO., to Aaron and Susan Peabody. She married Martin Britt, Nov 26, 1902. They came to Kansas in 1906 and located on a farm near Council Grove. They came to Chanute ten years ago. Britt died April 11, 1962.
"She is survived by four daughters, Mrs. C. C. (Aldine) Serl, Copan, OK; Mrs. Howard H. (Marjorie) Hockett, 903 N. Santa Fe; Mrs. Claude (Evelyn) Camp, rural Chanute; and Mrs. Ben (Elizabeth) Cooper, Onawa, IA; two sisters and two brothers, Mrs. Dave Armstrong, El Dorado Springs, MO; Mrs. Homer Holder, Charleston, AR; Ben Peabody, Gentry, AR; and John Peabody, Cabool, MO; 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
"The funeral service will be held at the Roy S. Gibson Funeral Home Monday at 10:30 a.m. with the Rev. Paul Life officiating. Burial will be in the Memorial Park cemetery."
After Grammy died, my mom kind of lost it. She'd already suffered one big blow when we had to sell the farm. It didn't help that it was so soon after Gramps had died and Mom was also going through menopause at the time. I was just fifteen, and the only child left at home by then. I didn't know how to help her and anything I said to her was never the right thing. It was a very trying time between Mom and me. I understood it, because I missed Grammy, too. Aunt Evelyn had given us some of Grammy's things and her dresses hung there in the house for awhile, still smelling of Grammy -- you know how clothes smell like the person who wears them, even when they're clean? Soon it would be summer and my eldest sister was working and needed someone to stay with her boys during the day. So I jumped at the chance to go, even though it didn't pay anything but my room and board, just to get away. By the time I returned, it had calmed down some. Poor Dad, I feel so bad for having left him alone in that. But I suppose my presence would've just complicated things. I often think how different our lives would've been if we had never left the farm. We don't think how we're changing our destiny when we marry the wrong person, or move away from our circle of friends and family. Sometimes it's a good thing, sometimes not so much. We never know.
Truly, Item Number One on a list of How To Have A Happy Life should be, "Marry well". And I don't mean financially. There are more important things than money. Marry someone who is not broken. Someone who is kind. Someone who is of good character. But then, if people really did that, I would never have been born, many times over! I guess that could be true for lots of people.
And I would never have known my precious Grammy.
She was a good wife, mother and grandmother, as much as she was allowed to be. She loved us all unconditionally and we loved her right back.