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Diary of Mary Elizabeth (May) Stapley, a Schoolteacher in Virgin, Utah

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. 60, 1992, No. 2

Diary of Mary Elizabeth (May) Stapley, a Schoolteacher in Virgin, Utah


EVERY HISTORIAN HAS A SUSPENSEFUL TALE of the unexpected discovered or recovered, so perhaps my experience is no different from many others. On May 26, 1988, I stopped in Mona, Utah, to visit my grandmother's cousin Josephine Kay Garfield, a pretty, regal, and dignified woman with white hair. After introductions we had an agreeable conversation and then I asked her about old letters, diaries, and family memorabilia.

"Well everybody has things in their attic, don't they?" she answered, her lively eyes sparkling. We went upstairs to find her attic was far from typical, including as it did pioneer-era clothing and a tiny bundle of letters in a trunk made by a member of the Mormon Battalion; she also had two photo albums bursting with nineteenth-century photographs. But the most interesting record in the trunk was a red journal kept by her mother, Mary Elizabeth Stapley Kay. This journal was written when "Aunt May" was a twenty-two-year-old schoolteacher in Virgin, Utah. Mrs. Garfield kindly let me borrow the journal; it proved to be delightful reading. A serious historian would zero in on the reference to the courtship of William Reese Palmer, southern Utah's premier historian. But it is May's wonderfully uninhibited way of writing that is the real pleasure of this small record. She talks frankly about the "notty" fellows in her classroom; her too-shy boyfriend, Othello Roundy; and her flirtations, admitting once that "I know I fool with them too much and I feel as guilty as the dickens about it but I don't know what to do to get rid of them now. . . ." Needless to say, Aunt May didn't marry Othello— and he waited another decade to marry someone else.

Mary Elizabeth (May) Stapley was born March 14, 1878, in Kanarraville, Iron County, Utah, a daughter of James and Young Elizabeth Steele Stapley; her mother was an opinionated and demanding midwife extraordinarily proud of her claim to be the first white child born in Utah; May's Australian-born father was a good farmer and a careful gardener who was nevertheless generally obedient to his stern wife.

May was a woman with such a good disposition that her husband teasingly called her "Easy." She attended school in Kanarraville, then the Branch Normal School in Cedar City, and finally the University of Utah, earning a lifetime teaching certificate. She took her career very seriously; after teaching in Virgin, she taught school in Kanarraville (1904-5) and then Beaver (1906-7). ("Peculiar, isn't it, how some old maid school marms will come back home for mother to look after and caress them? Well, such a one is May Stapley, though pleased to say, she has two lady friends from Beaver to keep a watch over her this time," reported the Iron County Record, December 25, 1906, when she came home for Christmas; the reporter may have been her brother William T. Stapley.) The summer of 1907 she went to Los Angeles to attend the National Education Association meeting and incidentally to see two aunts she had never met. Later she taught school in Nephi, and while attending summer school at the University of Utah May met Liza Williams from Mona, spent a weekend in Mona with her new friend, and made acquaintance with John "Jack" Kay, whom she married on December 5, 1910. May and Jack lived out their lives in Mona.

May sometimes felt isolated in the little town, but she kept active by participating in Mormon activities like Relief Society and Mutual; she was an avid reader, and she occasionally did substitute teaching. Friendly and easygoing, she kept in touch with a wide network of friends until she died.

Her husband was a farmer who raised grain, milked cows, and kept horses. He died April 4, 1928, at the age of fifty-six, leaving May with a family of five children, the youngest only two years old. May lived on in Mona until October 11, 1955, when she died at age seventy-seven.

May Stapley Virgin, Utah, Oct. 25, 1900

To-day I will begin my journal and try to write a little of what comes and joes. I am boarding with Sister Alice Isom.  The family consists of Kate, George, Alice and her four children. Will Palmer is down from Cedar to see his sweet-heart Rate.  I feel quite lonely just now and wish I could be home a few minutes. I have just looked at my photos but that is not like seeing the originals. I received a letter from Will  yesterday. He said all were well. He sent me $15 to get a watch.

School teaching is hard on the nerves. I feel as tired as if I had been washing when I get home. There are some very notty little fellows there and it puts me at my wits end to know what to do with them. I am not able to keep them very quiet and I often wonder if people think they are learning anything. I would give anything if I could get them to be good and do as I ask them to do. It worries me nearly to death to have them act as they do.

Friday, Oct. 26—Two weeks of my school is done. Time is beginning to fly and I am one day nearer home. School seems better. Received a letter from Kate to-day. All are well at home. Republican dance at Rockville to-day.

Oct. 28—Yesterday I helped Kate dust and wash dishes. Last night I went to a mutual meeting. To-day I went to Sunday School and meeting. Nearly all of the young people went to Rockville to Mutual Conf[e]rence. I acted as secratery [sic] in Sunday School. After meeting Miss Sanders, Miss Pratt and I took a walk down to the river. I have just written letters to Kate, Zina, and Rachel.  I am going to bed now.

Nov. 29.—A month has passed since I wrote last in this book. Since then I have had some pretty good times and some not so good. Have been to two dances since I came here and will be to another to-night if all is well. Have been to several sociables. The people are great for forfeit games and lots of kisses. Was out to a sociable last night given for Mr. and Mrs. Ashton as a wedding reception. Have gone out with George Went one night with Evadna and Powell Stratton. 

Get letters from O. R. about every two weeks but that seems along time. Don't know whether he will come over for Christmas or not.

Have written letters to John A. S. and Eliza Ann to-day. Ought to write to Rachel Griffin.

Would like to be home to eat Thanksgiving dinner to-day. They are having a good time there but here we are having nothing. Will go out this afternoon and play with school children. A dance will be to-night. Mr. Ranee and Mr. Kept are here. They stop at this hotel.  School has improved some. Would like it to be better. Three more weeks and I will be home for Christmas. Some of the Wash. Co. Teachers are going to S.L.C. for Institute during Christmas holidays. Don't think I shall go.

Jan. 18, 1901. About two months has passed since I last picked up this book. Have had fine times since then. Went home for holidays. Grandpa came over for me and Will was to meet us at Toquer. Grandpa had old Charley and Betsy. She was very poor and gave out before we reached there. We met two boys outside of town. They loaned us a horse to go on with. Instead of meeting Will at Toquerville, we met him at the top of the Twist accompanied by Miss Annie Isom. They were beaux once but I think it is a thing of the past now. Sister Isom think[s] he is too old.

Grandpa would not go with us so Will and I went on alone. We landed at home Dec. 22 1900 at sunset. We found Ma alone as Pa had gone to Cedar to attend Conference. Sunday morning I went to Sunday School. Met all of the girls and some of the boys. Eliza Ann went home with me to dinner. We did not go to meeting. After meeting we called on Sister Balser, Nora Berry, and Kate. Monday I cooked and prepared for Christmas. Went to the dance at night with Will. Christmas morning, about daylight, Othello landed in town. He came by mail. We did not know that he had arrived until about eleven o'clock, then the news spread like wildfire thru the hungry community.

It is time to go down and wash for breakfast. Will finish after.

Saturday, 19.—Christmas day we had a family reunion of all that were in town. There were present Pa, Ma, Kate and family, Mahonri and family, Will, Zina Parker, Middie Roundy, Wallie Pollock, Eliza Ann, Othello and myself. When Thell and I met the company were determined that we should kiss. We did it to please them and the whole crowd blushed as bad as we did. We went to the dance and had a good time. He stayed with us. We generally lingered a while after the rest had retired. He seldom arose in time for breakfast. One wash-day, he turned the washer all the time. He turned it before when he was over. I tell you, he's all right for a washerman. We spent our time mostly in eating, dancing, and talking. At first I thot he was bashful, but later desided that he just was not much of a talker, tho after a while he could hold his own in the conversation. He is not one of these spoony, soft fellows and that is what I like about him. I can't help but respect a person that will behave themselves.

When Sunday came we went to Sunday School and ate dinner and spent the afternoon with Kate. Did not go to meeting again.

The last day of the year and century was a fright. Some one had tattled and talked and stirred up a big yarn about the Stapley Scab. J. S. Berry and wife, Middie, John Reeves, and Thell were brought to our house to straighten matters. We had a hot time but I felt bad and disgusted to think that he had to come all that way and then be compelled to listen to such a nasty, low down, disgraceful yarn. I don't know what he thought about it and I did not have the cheek to ask him, but if he believes it I can't help it.

We spent the week peaceably and on Sunday morning Pa and I started for Virgin. I was to begin my daily task of minding and teaching children.

I left Thell at home. He stayed there until Thursday evening then went with the mail to St. George where Donalvin was waiting for him. I have not heard anything of him since.

Pa and I stayed in Toquer Sunday night and came over the next morning in time for school. It rained on us all of the way. He took little Linda Stapley back to live with us. If all is well I will have a little sister when I go home. 

I have taught two weeks since holidays and have eight more to teach.

School is much better and the children are getting to be very good. Last Sunday after meeting, we girls went down to the river. We decided to cross and gather squaw-bush gum. Joe Humphries took us across horseback one at a time. We gathered our gum and he brought us back in the same way. He acted very sociable and at meeting that night he sat on one side of me and Powell on the other. I was on nettles and got no earthly good of the meeting. When meeting was out Joe went for his hat but Unice Sanders and I had gone.

Evadna and I were over to Sander's last night to a candy pulling. Joe was there but he took Selly [sic] Isom home.

A week ago last night I was out to Literary Club. The Sanders girls Evadna and I went together. Julia and I sat together. Bro Jepson sat down by me. We laughed and talked and had a fine time. After club Eunice and I started home together. Julia stopped to fool with John Haslem and Bro. Jepson stepped up and took her arm. We had a good laugh Eunice and I. The crowd said he was looking for me but found Julia. I was not at all sorry.

I must stop writing now and straighten my room and fix my dresses. I am getting so big and fat that it takes me all of the time to repair clothing. I only weight 153 lbs. and seem to be gaining all of the time.

Sunday, Jan. 20—Yesterday I finished my plaid dress. Received a letter from Middie stating that Normal Students must be vaccinated or leave school. There is some talk of it being compelled all thru the State. In the afternoon I attended Teachers Institute.

I forgot to say anything about our Thanksgiving dance. It was fine, I danced till I was so tired I could hardly get home. On our way home George asked me for my company. Before I left home Ma told me not to engage my company to any one. I thought of what she said so refused. He has not offered to take me since but I feel alright without him. John Campbell has come to work for George now. He seems to be a nice boy.

Wednesday, 23—Sunday I went to S.S. and meeting, also meeting at night. After which the crowd went up to Ada Spendlove's home to spend the remaining part of the evening. Songs and recitations were nicely rendered. We also plaid the game, "Crossing the Plains." Monday night I went to Mutual. Sister Isom went to spend the evening with Sister Wright. After meeting Evadna and I called to take her home. Powell and Joe Humphries waited at the gate. Vad hurried out to Powell but I stayed for Sister Isom. We spent a very pleasant evening. Last night Vad and I spent the evening with Carrie Birk.

I look for a letter to-day. I do hope I get it. Breakfast is now ready so will go down.

Friday 25—Have received no letter yet. Last night we spent the evening with Ada Spendlove and had a very sociable time. Have had some rain this week. It is raining this morning. Yesterday I was drawing on the board at recess; Powell, Edwin, and Ray came in to help or talk I don't know which. I feel rather lonesome, a little homesick or something. At any rate I feel as if I should like to hear from home or somewhere to know what the people are doing.

I don't know whether Thell is the boy for me or not yet, but I believe I think more of him than any other boy I know, but I do believe he is a perfect gentlemen [sic] or at least he seems such. I shall go down now and look over my work for to-day.

Feb. 5, Tuesday.—Ten years ago to-day our Meeting House was burned down. 

Since I wrote in this book last I have been to Toquerville and had a fine time. Seymore came came [sic] for me Friday evening. There was a dance that night. George I. Batty and I had a couple of waltzes and a good old time talk. I also danced and talked with other boys. The dance turned out to be a toe party and Frank Sylvester marked my toe. He did not take me home. I visited all of the folks and paid Aunt Susie for my hats and bought a book from her.  Seymore, Edna, Emma, Veda, and Mrs. Roner brought me back Sunday after meeting.

Monday night I went to Mutual. Edwin Stratton brought me and Powell brought Evadna. She wanted to quit Powell so insisted that I should go to Choir Practice with her Wednesday night. The same boys came home with us again. I guess she fired him that night for Saturday and Sunday nights we were out to meeting, Edwin came home with me but she stayed to rehe[a]rse for the Theatre and came home alone.

I got a letter from my beau over the mountain. He said he heard I had a beau here. It quite surprised me for I don't know who would tell such news. I have none any way or at least I don't consider that I have. The boys here are altogether to[o] free and spoony for me. I like a good sensiable [sic] fellow that can keep his hands off the girls. I know I fool with them too much and I feel as guilty as the dickens about it but I don't know what to do to get rid of them now. Six weeks more then I will be home and have no more bother with them. If Thell could see me sometimes he might fire me and I could not blame him much if he would. I must write now to Sarah, Becca, Middie, and Eliza Ann. I may get them all done and I may not. Hope I shall do better tomorrow.

We have had a real snow-storm here but it is clearing off now and has not stormed today.

March, 5—I do well if I write in this book once a month. Will have to try and write what has happened in the last month. A few weeks ago I went to Rockville with Edwin. Alma Wright, Carrie Birk, Grace Gibson, and Fanny Stratton were in the company. We stayed all night because the roads were bad and there was no moon. We were afraid to come home in the dark. The next Friday night was Washington's Birthday. There was a theatre. I went with George. There was a dance after the theatre. We had a good time but it was very dusty.

I went to Toquer last Friday with Hyrum Duffin. Had a good time but did not see all of the folks. Grandpa and Aunt Susie brought me back Sunday.

Only two more weeks of school then I will say farewell to Dixie. I will be very busy the rest of the time preparing for the close. It is almost school time so will quit for a time again.

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