Surrounded by a thick fog, Alzenia gathered coal for the stove. It was early, and it was dark, but lighting the stove was her job. An owl hooted from a nearby tree, and the river ice softly popped as the floes ground against each other. She never liked that sound; it meant danger.
Zenia carried the full coal bucket into the house. With five kids in the loft, Mom and Dad in the back room, and Grandpa and Grandma in the bedroom, the small house was crowded. She knew that they were poor. It was 1879, and times were hard on the River. Her dad, his name was Thomas, ran the ferry every day and worked on his farm when he could. Sometimes he did odd jobs for folks in Leavenworth. He worked hard, long hours, which is why Zenia liked to start the stove; it gave her a few moments alone with him. With five kids, time alone was rare.
Although only nine years old, Zenia was starting to understand their situation; the ferry business was dying, but she wasn’t sure why. Always slow to fall asleep, she would lie in the dark listening to the grownups. Mostly they talked about boring things, sometimes they argued, and sometimes they talked about important things, like the ferry.
Grandpa, whose name was William Roberts, used to run the ferry, and before him great grandpa Roberts did. Now Dad did. Sometimes, Grandpa would reminisce about the good times when business boomed, and the entire town prospered. That was before the Civil War, and before the railroads. Back then steamboats were king, and Leavenworth bustled with travelers and river men. Upriver was the big city Louisville, but it had a reputation for malaria, and crime. Smart travelers knew that they could avoid Louisville by crossing at Leavenworth. But, that was before the War.
After the War – well, things changed. Growing industry needed railroads, and railroads needed bridges. Just nine years ago, the same year Zenia was born, Louisville built its first bridge. Since then railroads had become king, and steamboats began to disappear, and in Leavenworth, the ferry business dried up. Although he knew better, William blamed her Dad for the drop in business – but it was nobody’s fault.
Dad really didn’t want to run the ferry, but neither did his older brothers. When they could, each married and moved away. Uncle Oliver moved to Iowa, the others stayed around, but never visited. Even Dad’s sisters married early and ran off. That left poor Dad to run the ferry and take care of Grandpa and Grandma. Grandma was seventy-four, and rarely knew where she was. At seventy, William was too old and frail to run the ferry, but he acted as if he did. Zenia steered clear of him; he was cranky and mean. That’s probably why the others moved away.
Zenia heard Dad come in from the barn, so she poured a cup of coffee. In the flickering stove light, she watched Dad tiptoe through the cabin. William grabbed his arm as he passed.
“Going to be another cold one,” he whispered, and then coughed violently. “Watch out for the ice – river’s tricky this time of year,” he gasped. Dad pulled the quilt around the old man’s shoulders.
“I will, you can count on that,” he whispered. Grandpa grunted and closed his eyes.
Dad smiled when he saw Zenia standing by the door with his coffee.
“Do be careful, Papa,” she pleaded.
“I will. I should be home for supper,” he answered, patting Zenia’s head. “Help your mom; she’s not well.” Thomas closed the door and stood on the porch. To Zenia, who watched through a frosted window, it seemed as if he was steeling himself to move on.
“Dad always looks tired,” she thought, “but he never complains.” Zenia closed the shade and woke her mom. “Dad’s gone; he said he’d be back for supper.” Rachael coughed and nodded, but didn’t get out of bed. Although she kept up a pleasant face, Mom looked tired and old. Lately, Zenia noted that she coughed a lot. When asked about her cough, Mom laughed and said it was just a cold, but Zenia wasn’t so sure.
Zenia and Sarah did what they could; they cleaned house, cooked, and looked after their little brothers. Francis, their older brother, worked as a field hand. His meager wages bought medicine and supplies. Zenia knew that he wanted to leave to become a river man. She figured it was just a matter of time before he ran off.
Zenia never met her mom’s parents, all she knew was that they fostered Rachael with widow Sarah Vernon and disappeared. Mom was eleven at the time. She seldom spoke about her parents, but once told Zenia that they were Indian. Zenia didn’t really know what that meant, but in town, she noticed that some people avoided Mom. Some store clerks would ignore Mom to help other customers first. This made Zenia mad, but not Mom. Rachael was always looking on the bright side of things and strove to instill that in her kids.
“Don’t look at the broken gate, look at the roses blooming near the house,” she would say. Zenia tried, but it was hard to do.
Lunchtime came and no Thomas. Suppertime came, and no Thomas. Bedtime came, and still no Thomas. Sarah ushered the boys to bed, while Zenia stayed with her mom. They sat by the stove mending and waited. Then they sat by the stove doing nothing and waited. Then they heard boots on the porch, followed by knocking. Rachael rushed to the door.
“Who’s there?” she asked opening the door. Three stone-faced men stood on the porch.
“Sorry, Ma’am, we have bad news. We need to speak to William,” one said, hat in hand.
Rachael motioned them in. “Thomas is still on the River. I’ll wake William. Please sit down.” Wiping their feet, the men came in and found seats around the table.
“Sorry about the hour, but we need to talk to William.”
“Zenia, get grandpa,” Rachael ordered as she bustled about, pouring coffee for the men. Zenia woke William and helped him to the table.
“What brings you gents so late?” he coughed.
“Sorry, Mr. Roberts, Ma’am, but we have bad news.” William slowly nodded bracing himself for their report.
Thomas’s trip to Kentucky was uneventful; however, the return was rough. High waves rocked the boat and drove shore ice into mid-channel. Nearing the dock, the ferry listed, the men thought perhaps some cargo shifted, or maybe he hit a snag, no one really knew. Ice floes and waves pushed the listing boat. It shuddered, and then top-sided, throwing Thomas and passengers into the frigid waters.
“Did you find him?” William asked.
“No, we haven’t; I’m afraid he perished. We’ll drag the river in the morning.” William clenched his hands, and Rachael fell to the floor sobbing.
“How about the passengers and the boat?” William asked.
“The passengers made it, but the boat, she’s gone.” The men looked at their feet, shuffling nervously in their chairs.
“Thanks for coming so late,” William said calmly. After a life on the river, nothing surprised him. He shuffled to the door and said goodnight as the men left. Rachael remained on the floor, head in her hands, sobbing. Stunned, Zenia stood in the corner and watched her mother.
“What will happen to us?” Zenia asked. Her mom just shrugged and continued sobbing. Zenia suddenly realized that they were alone, a sick mom, five children, and two failing grandparents. She watched Mom for a while and then climbed into the loft. Her brothers and sisters took the news hard; Dad had been their rock.
The next couple of years were a dark period for the family. Mom struggled to keep things together, but the ferry was gone, the farm in debt. With only the children to help, it was a losing battle. At fifteen, brother Frances jumped on a steamboat, or perhaps a train, and fled. They never saw him again. Zenia helped Mom write the aunts and uncles, but her cries for help were futile; she received no answer from Uncle Oliver in Iowa. Mom’s cough worsened, and she grew weaker and weaker. Finally, one spring Sunday, she gathered the children.
“We are going to church,” she announced, handing each a freshly laundered and patched set of clothes. “Hurry now; it’s a walk to the chapel.” Although they had not been regular churchgoers, everyone knew them. As the service ended, Mom stood, and the church fell silent. Slowly she ushered the children to the front. Wiping her eyes, she turned and faced the congregation.
“You all know me, and you knew my Thomas,” she began. “For nearly two years I’ve done my best.” Sobbing, she paused and fought a coughing spell. “I-I-I can’t do it anymore. So I ask you fine folks; I ask, can you find homes for my young-uns. Sarah’s thirteen and nearly a woman and Zenia’s pert near twelve. Either one will be a great help around the house. Now my boys are young, William’s only nine, but he’s big for his age, and can already do a man’s work in the fields. My baby, Thomas, is only seven, but he’ll grow. Please, won’t somebody take my babies?” Mom sat down and waited.
A murmur rose through the church. Eventually, Martha Tower, a widow herself, took Zenia to foster. A family near Martha took Sarah, and a local farmer took the two boys. That was it. That morning the children went home with their new families. It seems harsh today, but in the 1880’s that’s how it worked. Zenia’s mom died a short time later.
Martha Tower’s husband, Robert, died during Civil War, but she still lived on their farm near Blue River. Folks called the area Gospel Ridge because of the many strong Christians that lived in the area. Living with Martha, Zenia thrived, always optimistic, albeit somewhat stoic. She stayed there until she was twenty-one, and married Martha’s nephew, James May Tower.
The newlyweds took up housekeeping on a hundred acres overlooking the Ohio River. The farm prospered, and they gave it a name – Fairview Farm. Zenia and James were a perfect match, and in time, raised nine children to adulthood.
As for Sarah, she did well in her foster home, and eventually became a secretary for the local railroad. She met the Company’s President, married, and moved to Denver. The boys lived with the local farmer until Uncle Oliver Roberts arrived from Iowa. He demanded that they return with him, but the farmer resisted. Eventually, Thomas went with Oliver. In Iowa, he became a prosperous farmer. William, however, stayed and at age sixteen, against the wishes of his sisters, struck out on his own. In time, he settled in Tennessee, married, and raised a family.
This brings us to a lovely summer morning in 1923. Fairview Farm, bathed in the red glow of dawn, was a hub of activity. It was a big day – three of Zenia’s children were to be married on the farm, overlooking the Ohio River. Although busy with numerous details, Zenia allowed herself to gaze at the view. It was, and is, magnificent. Below the bluff, the river meanders through Horseshoe Bend – unstoppable, unchanging, relentlessly flowing toward the Mississippi. Always the lifeline for Leavenworth, for Zenia, the river was a constant reminder of her dark childhood.
She shook off the growing shadows. “Not today,” she thought and returned to the flurry of activity. Today was indeed a happy day, one she could never have imaged forty-five years earlier. So today, as she had for her entire life, Zenia chose to be happy. A trait she passed down to her children. Despite all she had lived through, Zenia still had an unfailing ability to: “Look beyond the broken gate to see the roses by the door.”
For the Towers, I hope you enjoy this fictional account based on Mommie Tower’s life.
Read about Olivia’s Story: Protector of the Realm