Monday, January 20, 2020

Bessie Pearl (Bair) Benedick: A Life Portrait

Nearly six years ago, I conducted an interview with my grandmother Marilyn. During our hours-long conversation, she shared about her own maternal grandmother, Bessie Pearl, with whom she shared a close bond.

Bessie, she remembered, "had a terrific personality. She had a broken tooth. It wasn't in the very front, but it was next to it - an eyetooth [and] half of it was gold...and it just went with her personality. Just to a T."

Bessie Pearl (Bair) Benedick

Born on a farm northeast of the small prairie town of Plainville on September 11, 1889, Bessie Pearl Bair was the daughter of Michael and Mary Jane (Andrus) Bair - early Kansas homesteaders.

Michael and Mary Jane Bair's home 1 mile east .5 mile north from Plainville, Kansas.
Michael and Mary Jane pictured 3rd and 4th from left. Undated.

At the age of five, Bessie was enumerated with her family in the 1895 Kansas state census - her first known documented appearance in a genealogical record.

1895 Kansas census: Michael T. Bair family including 5-year-old Bessie

Bair daughters (left to right) Laura, Mildred, Christina, and Bessie.
Undated but likely around the time of the 1895 census enumeration.

Bessie was one of 16 children. Marilyn, my own grandmother, thought this may have created some distance between Mary Jane and Bessie. Marilyn couldn't recall Bessie ever mentioning any specific memories or conversations with her mother Mary Jane.

"Grandma Bair [Mary Jane] had 16 kids, so for her to really impress one of them enough that they'd talk about her a lot...," Marilyn chuckled as she reflected on the distractions that likely kept Mary Jane very busy and limited her ability to bond closely with her children.

Bair family with Bessie pictured center standing behind Michael (seated).

By early 1910, Bessie had met Ernest George Benedick who was courting her to be his wife. He sent her a postcard with his portrait in 1910 when he was 22 years old.

Earnest George Benedick - 1910, aged 22

The flip side of the portrait included a handwritten note to Bessie.

Ernest Benedick postcard to Bessie Bair, 1910 (before May).

Ernest wrote, "I will send you one of my picture. I forgot to put one in the other bunch of cards I sent, they are put on awful poor cards." He signed off, "B.B.S.W.A.K." I'm puzzled by the signature acronym. Be Back Soon? Any thoughts?

On May 18, 1910, Ernest and Bessie were married at the courthouse in Stockton, Kansas.

Ernest and Bessie (Bair) Benedick - wedding photo 1910

Ernest and Bessie had three children: Della May, Alice Aretta, and Hazel Nevella. Sadly, Alice Aretta passed away on September 16, 1913, at the age of six months and ten days. Her obituary noted that "she had been sick over 2 months, but not dangerously until the last month of her illness."

Alice Aretta Benedick

I suspect it was Bessie who penned these lines for her daughter's obituary:
"To Bloom in Heaven. We could see by our darling childs weakness, that voices of angels were calling her home to the other shore to rest in the dear Saviours arms for ever more. Lovely boquets (sic) of flowers rested on the tiny white casket, little snow white flowers were placed around our tiny loved one who is now at rest in her Savior's arms."

Nearly four years later in 1917, my great-grandmother Hazel Nevella was born.

Ernest and Bessie Benedick with daughters Della (standing) and Hazel Nevella (baby)
August 6, 1917

The Benedicks were farmers. Marilyn remembered that Bessie "never worked. Never drove a car. She was a good farm wife: cooking and cleaning and canning and dressing chickens. You name it and she could do it. That's where my mother learned and I learned all mother could teach me. I could dress a chicken before we ever moved to town. I mean start to finish - while it was still on foot."

Left to right: Della, Hazel Nevella, Ernest and Bessie Benedick

In the early 1940's, the Benedicks moved into town (Plainville) giving up farming life. They operated a service station out of their home.

Marilyn pictured outside the Benedick's service station.

In early 1946, Ernest was ailing from esophageal cancer (see Unwitting Drink of Death). He died on February 10th of that year, leaving Bessie a widow. After his untimely death, Marilyn recalled that "the gas part of the service station closed. Grandma [Bessie] tried [running] it for a while but it was a lot of work for her to pump gas into cars. And she wasn't very healthy; she was a little old woman.

On September 11, 1947 - her 58th birthday - Bessie married Thomas Corwin Dodd in Arkansas. It was not a happy wedding. Bessie's daughters were not pleased with their mother remarrying. Marilyn remembered that Thomas "didn't care much for kids. He was an uptight person. He was meticulous. He knew everything. He was an intelligent man, but he wasn't a people person at all."

Family lore says that Dodd was stealing money from Bessie's savings and incurring debts in town. The problem got so out of hand that in September 1949, Bessie published a notice in the local newspaper refuting responsibility for any expenses unless she personally incurred them.

Plainville Times - September 15, 1949

One of Bessie's grandsons shared a story that underscored her tumultuous relationship with Thomas. 
"Grandma never banked. She kept all of her money at home. Thomas was being sneaky, looking for it and taking it. Bessie caught Tommy stealing from her and she threw him out of the house. 
She always kept a single shot pistol loaded on the stand by her bed. One night she heard a lot of noise in the bathroom. She sat up and could see into the bathroom, and saw the window had been pushed up and a hand reaching from the outside. The hand reached over the windowsill to grab hold and pull the rest of the body into the house. She grabbed her gun and shot it. Whoever the intruder was took off running leaving a trail of blood everywhere.
A couple weeks later, Thomas came back to try and get grandma [Bessie] to make up with him and he had a bandage on his right hand."
On January 12, 1953, Bessie's petition for a divorce was granted.

After Bessie divorced Tommy, Marilyn said that "she stayed in the same house [in Plainville] at the service station. The gas pumps had been taken away. For a while after the gas pumps were gone, she kept the little store that was attached to the house. We sold pop and candy out of the little store and it was just a block from the high school and grade school. The school kids [would] all come over there and I would sell them candy and pop. It was a lot of fun." But eventually the station was closed.

On December 6, 1954, Bessie passed away at the age of 65. 

Four generations (left to right): Bessie, Nevella, Marilyn (standing on log),
and Mary Jane.

Marilyn remembered Bessie's death as, "one of the darkest times in my life. I just adored her. It was really sad for me." 


  1. Another idea for the "B. B. S. W. A. K." is "Bye, Bye, Sealed With A Kiss". I have my Great Grandparents' wedding certificate which is just like the one you have from Stockton, KS. Theirs is from York, NE. Enjoyed your post!

    1. I like your idea for the acronym, Laura. Let's go with it. Thank you for weighing in.

  2. Nice post Mike. I wish I had known her.

  3. I thought Bessie Bair Sealed With A Kiss, but Bye Bye makes more sense.

  4. What a hard life she had, losing her first husband, a child, and marrying badly the second time around. But she must have been a wonderful mother and grandmother to have been so well loved.

    1. She certainly made an impression on my grandmother. Their bond resonated with me because I also had that closeness with my grandmother.

  5. Lovely photos to go with your story. Well done!

    1. Thank you, Virginia. Some of my favorite old family photos that I've inherited come from Bessie's collection.