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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

Fred, Ida May and Their Heirs

Updated: May 19

This column was published May 4, 2024 in the Manhattan Mercury.

 

I barely remember Fred Bemis, my maternal great grandfather, who died when I was five years old. His death in 1963 made the front page above the fold in the Hays Daily News, which described him as “an outstanding citizen of Hays for 30 years.”

 

Fred Bemis came to Ellis County, Kansas from Iowa as a toddler in 1880. His family settled in Turkville, a community established on the north bank of the Saline River four years earlier by some Tennessee Baptists led by the Rev. Allen King. On the windswept High Plains, Fred would meet, fall in love, and in 1897, marry King’s daughter, Ida May.

 

Three decades later, his life would change again.

 

In the midst of a Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the Bemis Pool in Ellis and Rooks counties would become among the largest producing oil fields on the North American continent. A rock-solid Christian before and after the fossil fuel, Fred’s belief in God, the Scriptures, and Ida May, kept him grounded.

 

Fred underwrote construction of a new Baptist church in Hays, endowed scholarships at what was then Fort Hays State College, bought each of his two sons and one daughter a farm within driving distance, and divided the oil proceeds evenly among them.

 

A couple years ago, my mother (Fred’s granddaughter) gave me a boatload of family photos, many dating back generations. My sister and I recently sat down with her and asked her to identify the people in these photos. Mom’s the only one left from her nuclear family and has become our Bemis/Ordway matriarch. Her nearly nine decades of memories are worth preserving.

 

One thing that struck me as we sorted through the pics. There are no photos of Fred and Ida May as a couple, they’re always surrounded by family. Their children, Ralph, Lawrence (not Larry) and Elizabeth (not Lizzy), Aunt Aggie, Uncle Will, Aunt Maud, Cousin Florence, Grandmother King, Uncle T.D. (Touchdown?). Always family group shots. No selfies of Fred flashing Saline River gang signs. No TikToks of Ida May encouraging fellow Turkvillians to be “that girl,” the one who wakes up early, practices yoga, journals, drinks green juice, wears athleisure and minimal makeup and continuously improves her life.

 

What you see in these century-old photographs reflects the values which guided their decisions and their existence.   

 

When it became clear the Bemis Pool would sustain them, Fred and Ida May left the farm and moved to town. I remember two things about that house on 17th Street in Hays. A little alcove in the hallway, designed specifically to hold a black rotary dial telephone, and a toybox in a parlor closet. Mom said I played with the same toys she did at that age. From the same toybox.

 


The farm Fred Bemis purchased for his daughter, Elizabeth, is just over the northwestern horizon from Turkville, in Rooks County. It’s where Mom grew up. In and amongst the photos, we found a letter Mom had written, at age 8, to Ida May:

 


Plainville, Kansas

August 15, 1943

 

Dear Grandma,

 

How are you and Grandpa? I hope you are fine. We are all O.K. When are you ever going to come over? I don’t know when we are going to come over ha ha. Nance is cleaning cupboards today. Maybe we will come over and stay for 2 or 3 days before school starts.

 

Love,

 

Geraldine May Ordway

 

Turned out Mom did come over and stay for two or three days before school started. No doubt, she played with those toys in the parlor closet. And Fred and Ida May came over, too. It was within driving distance. By design. On purpose.

 

There is value in knowing where we come from, and even more value in spending time remembering.

 

Fred was born in 1877. I was born five years before he died. Mom will be 89 this summer. A week later, Lane Daniel Matson, Fred Bemis’ great-great-great grandson, will celebrate his third birthday.

 

One day, he and his brother and their families will inherit these photos and memories. Knowing where and from whom you came seems like an important thing. When this column is published on Saturday, I will be in Kansas City, taking in Lane’s big brother’s soccer game.

 

When are you ever going to come over?

 

Today, kid. I’ll see you very soon.

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