BY DR. SHAUN TREAT
Mother’s Day is always a great time to praise the endless patience and grit of the special ladies who’ve helped make us who we are. In that spirit of gratitude, and as prelude to reminding you ta call your sweet momma, here’s a look back at a few of the many Denton matriarchs who have made our community better ever since way back in the day. Read all about them in this month's edition of Back in the Day...
Denton’s history overflows with tough women of amazing grit who loomed large. One of Denton’s very first foremothers, Ruth Murphy, supervised the ambitious move of the log-hewn Murphy Hotel cabin being pulled by mule-team on rolling logs from Old Alton to its new lot in Denton… nine-months pregnant while knitting in her rocking chair atop the jostling porch (some say to guard her china)! Unsurprisingly, she bore the first manchild of Denton within days of the spectacular 1857 relocation. Ruth also became quite famous in these parts for her tidy accommodations, legendary hospitality, and sumptuous meals that were announced by ringing a dinner triangle that echoed across the downtown Square. In another epic episode during an 1860 fire that consumed part of the Denton Square, which started in Smoot’s Dry Goods Store then explosively ignited 25 kegs of gunpowder that rained down fiery debris upon wooden tenderbox buildings, a bucket brigade of Denton’s women saved the township from the rapidly-spreading inferno! In hoop skirts, no less!
Denton damsels are particularly powerful when they work in teams. Denton’s Ariel Club, established in 1891 as Denton’s oldest club for women, is one major outlet for Denton mavens who’ve had a big influence on our fair city and were a driving force behind creating Denton’s city parks. As Kevin Roden noted in his own tribute a few years back, Denton’s women also formed a “Shakespeare Club” in 1899 that played a formative role in shaping the Denton culture we all know and love.
Yet even during times when most women were simply identified as “wife of” or “mother to” notable menfolk, Denton had more than its fair share of trailblazers. Louisa Mansfield Owsley, the scion of old Virginia gentry, arrived in 1872 when she was 40 years old and became Denton’s first homeopathic physician. She had married Dr. Henry Owsley in 1847 when she was 17, wagon-trained to California for the Gold Rush as they started a family, only to be captured by Native Americans but then released after helping treat the grateful tribe for a bad outbreak of pinkeye. After returning home a few years later with “pockets literally stuffed with gold,” the Owsley’s Missouri plantation was burned during the Civil War so the two Doctor Owsleys again struck out to rebuild their fortunes as a traveling Medicine Show wagon of amazing healing elixirs. By the time they moved their family to Denton, Louisa was a seasoned homeopath known for her strong opinions and fiercely independent spirit, treating only women and children. It was no secret the Madame Doctor had nothing but contempt for conventional medicine as practiced by her husband. “Grandma wouldn’t doctor with Grandpa,” descendent Lou Owsley would later recall, but she “would let him hitch up her horse, though, when she went on calls.” Dr. Louisa Owsley would deliver over 4,000 babies as a sought-after midwife and homeopath during her next 34 years in Denton, more than any other doctor in the county! That’s an impressive record considering she didn’t get started until 40!
Madame Doctor Owsley wasn’t the only female medical help in town, either. In 1897, Angeline Burr came to Denton from Arkansas with her four children and became the first African-American woman to purchase land in Denton’s Quakertown district. She took in laundry and delivered many of the city’s babies, white as well as black, as a much-beloved Quakertown midwife. “Aunt Angeline” was the only departure specifically mentioned in the Denton Record and Chronicle when Quakertown was evicted in 1921, reporting that Miss Angeline was moving with her daughter and son-in-law to California. Much later, it would be a determined group of Denton mothers who joined forces as the Christian Women’s Interracial Fellowship to effectively ease desegregation of Denton schools during the 1960s. No doubt about it, y’all, Denton women sure do get stuff done!
These are just a few of the women’s stories shaping Denton’s past, and a great reminder to look around and thank the matriarchs who continue to play such important roles in our lives and in our community! Thanks Moms!
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Office of History & Culture as well as our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.