Time Before Now – May 1896 – Grover Cleveland was in the White House for the second time, the only U.S. president elected to non-consecutive terms. He also holds the distinction for having married the nation’s youngest First Lady, 21-year-old Frances Folsom Cleveland. Their 1886 wedding was only the second held in the White House. Giacomo Puccini’s Opera “La Boheme” premiered in Italy and the first modern Olympics opened in Athens on April 11. German physicist Wilhelm Rontgen discovered x-rays. Serial killer H. H. Holmes was hanged, having killed at least 27 women in perhaps the most grizzly insurance fraud in history. His crimes are the subject of authur Erik Larson’s best selling book, “Devil in the White City.”
May 11, 1896
On this day, author Mari Sandoz, famous for making her father infamous, was born in the middle of the Nebraska Sandhills.
Her seminal work, “Old Jules,” related the hardships of early homesteaders. Finally published in 1935 to immediate critical acclaim, it had been rejected at least once by every major publishing house in the country. Two later books, the 1942 “Crazy Horse,” and in 1953 “Cheyenne Autumn,” became film classics in the hands of the country’s premier Western director, John Ford.
Sandoz (left) refused to varnish facts in either her fiction or non-fiction and became controversial as a result. The novel “Slogum House,” which followed “Old Jules,” in 1937 was sorely resented by Nebraskans who considered it an unsavory portrayal of their pioneer culture. The 1939 book, Capital City, got her in an equal amount of trouble with residents of Lincoln. Out of favor at both ends of the state, the 43-year-old writer moved to Denver.
It was just the latest unhappy chapter in the author’s life. Born Mary (Marie) Suzette in the isolation of western Nebraska, she spoke little English as a young girl and didn’t manage to complete the eighth grade until age 16.
Dominated by her brutal and volcanic immigrant father, (below) she suffered years of back-breaking labor along with physical and mental abuse. Rescuing the family’s livestock during a blizzard cost her the sight in one eye from snow blindness and her hands were permanently damaged from holding a hoe.
Finally making a bid for freedom, she passed the rural school teachers exam despite her lack of a high school education and taught in one room country schools for a number of years.
But an unhappy marriage to a neighboring rancher, Wray Macomb, at 18, on the heals of her unhappy childhood, was not salvation. Divorcing after six years, she moved to Lincoln. Absent a diploma, she still managed to enroll at the University of Nebraska as an English major. (Right, Sandoz, circa 1920)
A succession of low-paying jobs followed while she continued to write as Marie Macomber. Having received more than 1,000 rejection slips, she retreated back to the Sandhills, burning hundreds of pages of manuscripts beforehand.
On his deathbed, Jules, who considered artists and writers the “maggots of society” reportedly asked that she write the story of his life. Shortly after he died in 1929, Marie Macomber was left behind. She became Mari Sandoz and Old Jules became a literary legend.
A man of many flaws and a few virtues, her story follows Jules through four failed marriage, conflicts with cattle barons and nearly everybody else, coupled with a shady past on Europe. Revealed as part monster and two parts hero, the writing allowed Sandoz to reconcile her own ambivalence toward her father. (Left, Mari’s mother, Jules’ fourth wife)
Despite his complete lack of interpersonal relationships, Jules sited hundreds of homestead claims in Western Nebraska and was a talented amateur horticulturist. Their ranch was crossroads for traders, trappers, adventurers and Native Americans with stories that Mari absorbed as a young girl.
Apparently passing on his strong will and determination to his daughter, it allowed her to survive the bleak years of rejection to become the “story teller of the plains.” Among her many awards, she received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, the John Newbery Medal in juvenile fiction for “The Horsecatcher,” the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Native Sons and Daughters of Nebraska and was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1976.
Mari Sandoz grave site
The author died of bone cancer in New York on March 10, 1966, and was returned to the Sandhills for burial. Her grave overlooks the family ranch just south of Gordon.
The Mari Sandoz High Plains Center, 1000 Main Street, Chadron State College, Chadron, Nebraska, features photographs and artifacts from the center’s collections that examines the author’s advocacy for Native Americans, her affinity for the prairie landscape and her dedication to research. Located on the main floor of the Sandoz Center, it joins five other permanent exhibits, including the C.F. Coffee Gallery, which tells the story of cattle ranching in the plains, the E.H. Barbour Paleontology exhibits, and a tribute to Mari’s sister, Flora, and her love for Nebraksa’s wild flowers.
Admission is free. Hours are 10 to noon Monday through Thursday and 1 to 4 Friday. Closed weekends and holidays. For more information go to sandozcenter.com or contact Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, Chadron State College, 1000 Main Street. Chadron, NE 69337.
© Text Only – 2022 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.