For Hattie Gonner, life is simple. Though she misses her family, the advanced technology of the late 19th century helps her stay in touch while she thrives and survives in beautiful Durango, Colorado.
Hattie grew up in Clinton, Missouri, but when her oldest half-sister needed help during her fourth pregnancy, Hattie and her mom boarded a train and traveled West. Hattie was 19 years-old and ready for a change. She just hadn’t planned on it being a permanent one. It didn’t take long, however, for her to change her mind.
“Durango all year-round is a splendid place,” said Hattie. Founded in 1880, the modern city features the typical features, such as schools and churches, as well as the newest amenities, such as electricity. Perhaps Hattie’s favorite feature, however, is the trolley. “It comes up town, nearly to our house,” she said. Between the trolley and the train, it’s easier to make the three day trip to visit her parents and sister, Pearl, in Missouri.
After Hattie’s sister gave birth in 1888, Hattie didn’t leave. The beauty of Colorado captured her heart. In 1889, Frank Gonner did, too. A native of Luxembourg, Frank married Hattie in 1891. Before the wedding, Hattie had worked as a school teacher, but the wedding, and immediate pregnancy, changed things. She had enjoyed teaching, but her new roles suit her just fine.
“I love being a mother and wife,” she said. “It is what God prepared me to be.” Her parents also prepared her for marriage by making sure Hattie could cook (baking is her favorite), clean, and help with other chores, like gardening. Hattie also sews, which she loves to do. She hasn’t joined a quilting bee, though, because she prefers to make clothes, and with two young children she has plenty of items to make and mend.
Even though she decided to get married and have a family, Hattie first prepared herself for life as an independent woman. She completed high school and attended a year of college at the Baird College for Young Ladies before moving West. She plans to educate both of her children, especially her daughter Dorothea.
“I firmly believe all women should be able to attend school through high school,” said Hattie. “We need to be more able to manage if something tragic happens.” Such as when her mother and sister both lost their husbands and were left with hands full of kids.
Just as important as an education is the right for women to vote. “When my brother-in-law died, my sister wasn’t able to vote for our town council, or for those who make the property laws,” said Hattie. Though her sister owned property, she had to hire a man to represent her. That changed in 1893 in Colorado, and Hattie plans to make sure she and her daughter are well-educated and involved in the community.
Within that community, Hattie mingles with others mostly in the church setting. “Calling on other women seems to be not as popular as it was when I was a girl,” she said. “When someone new moves to town, that is when everybody calls.” With two children at home and another on the way, she doesn’t have much time left for socializing anyway. If she can find the time, Hattie likes to sing and dance, just like she and Frank did when they were courting.
Though the church provides everyone a chance to stay connected, Hattie has never forgotten its real purpose – as a house of worship. Though she grew up Baptist and Frank was raised, and left, the Catholic church, they are teaching their children about God. “We attend church as often as we are able,” she said. “Everybody I know attends church. It is a most important part of my life. The joy of being a child of God is what sustains us in difficulty.”
It’s that joy to which Hattie clings now, in the midst of a difficult pregnancy. “I am feeling very poorly,” she said. “I am afraid, even though I know God is caring for me. But if He should call me, who would care for the children? And Frank? I do not want to leave my family, but if it is God’s will, I will go. If it is my time, I know I will be with Jesus, and I rejoice in that.”
Hattie’s story is finished by her sister, Minnie Pearl Roberts. Hattie died in June 1897 after her third child died. Frank lived another 15 years, until he committed suicide in February 1912 in a box car in Silverton, Colorado. Pearl tells the story from 1897 through 1912.
Hattie Gonner is a relative from author Kathy Gibson’s family history. The yet-to-be-published story is a creative non-history account of Gibson’s ancestors.