“A Happy Home Without Husbands”

“Charismatic, religious, smart-as-a-whip, trouble-maker”—descriptions applied to Martha McWhirter, who moved into Belton after the Civil War with her husband George and their twelve children. George opened a mercantile business, they built a large limestone house and the

George and Martha McWhirter.

couple, active Methodists, attended the non-denominational Union Sunday School.

McWhirter Home

Martha organized a weekly women’s Bible study and prayer group. In August 1866, after two of her children and a brother died, Martha attended a revival and felt it had failed to offer comfort for her losses. Afterward, she reported to her Bible study group that she heard God speak and experienced a “Pentecostal baptism,” which may have included speaking in tongues. She believed she had been sanctified, set apart by God for a special purpose.

With the zeal of the newly converted, she emphasized the importance of dreams and revelations as the source of spiritual guidance rather than the sacraments and baptism. She encouraged the women in her Bible study to pray for sanctification and to share their dreams and revelations to arrive at a group consensus for their guidance.

The women prayed about trials of everyday life such as authoritarian husbands, dishonorable business dealings, drunkenness, and physical abuse. One of their early group decisions—the sanctified should not have sexual or social contact with the unsanctified—may have resulted from already having more children than they wanted. Whatever led to the decision, it spelled the beginning of some high-profile divorces and angry outbursts from townspeople. The new theology also resulted in the removal of five Baptists from their church rolls and several others being elbowed out of their denominations.

In addition to refusing to sleep with their husbands, the women refused monetary support except as payment for work. In the beginning, they sold eggs, butter, and hooked rugs. They placed the profit into a common pot, enabling them to help a sister whose husband denied her money for necessities. Later, they used their funds to hire a lawyer for divorce proceedings.

Distraught women came with their children to Martha’s house, escaping angry and often abusive husbands, filling the house beyond capacity. George McWhirter, believing in Martha’s sincerity, did not understand her behavior, but he never publically criticized her. Eventually, he moved into a room above his downtown store.

One woman inherited a large house, which they turned into a boarding house for lodging members and the public. Townspeople watched in amazement as wives of prominent men showed determination to make their way financially by taking in laundry, a chore traditionally relegated to black women of the community. Recognizing they were no longer accepted in polite society, the women took any work offering financial gain.  Two women chopped wood and delivered it to homes. Others worked as domestics, seamstresses, home nurses, and one became a cobbler.

Hard work paid off, and the group prospered, allowing members to rotate working four-hour shifts and take turns caring for and teaching their children.

The Sanctificationist code did not exclude men. In later years the women told an interviewer no man ever stayed with the group longer than nine months because “they want to boss, but they find they can’t.” In 1879, two young men from Scotland who belonged to a similar group at home, came to Belton seeking membership. It was one thing for the men of the town to put up with women being “Sancties,” but quite another for males to join. A group of men took the newly arrived gentlemen from their home at midnight and whipped them severely. When they still refused to leave town, they were declared insane in a district court hearing and sent to the State Lunatic Asylum in Austin. They were released very quickly, after agreeing never to return to Belton.

A hotel operator in nearby Waco hired some of the women in 1884 for one dollar a day and was so pleased with their industry, that he asked for more workers. Besides offering a good income, the women learned the hotel business. They opened the Central Hotel across from the

The Central Hotel

railroad depot. At first, townspeople boycotted the place, but after George McWhirter died, and it became obvious the hotel was the finest in town and offered the best food of any establishment, it became popular for locals.

The community’s attitude changed toward Martha. Maybe it began when she became a widow, no longer separated from her husband. Perhaps Martha’s donation of $500 to bring in the railroad spur or her contribution for building an opera house caused a change in the attitude of the community. She became the first woman to serve on the Belton Board of Trade—a precursor of the Chamber of Commerce.

Believing the women should see more of the world, Martha rented a house in the summer of 1880 near New York’s Central Park. She divided the members into three groups, each staying for six weeks. They traveled to the city by rail and returned by ship to Galveston. Martha estimated the total cost at $3,000.

By 1891, when the group incorporated as the Central Hotel Company, they owned several pieces of the local real estate, three farms providing food for hotel guests and feed for their livestock. Their net income reached $800 a month.

One of the women became a self-taught dentist charging only the cost of the material because she did not have a license. One member moved to New York, setting up a business selling pianos. By the 1890s, they traveled extensively to New York, San Francisco, and Mexico City, subscribed to many magazines, hired tutors for their children, and no longer held prayer meetings. They continued gathering, discussing dreams and arriving at group decisions. Although Martha served as the leader, the group operated on feelings and consensus, often sensing when something was wrong, and relying on dreams to tell them what to do. The answer might be selling one of the farms or encouraging a “disloyal” member to get married.

In 1899 the group decided to leave Belton for a locale with a more stimulating environment. Group consensus settled on Washington, D.C. as the best place for pursuing their cultural interests.

It’s unclear how much the group received from the sale and lease of their Belton property. Some estimates claim $200,000. They paid $23,000 cash for a house in Mount Pleasant, Maryland, and spent another $10,000 renovating the property.

Martha died in 1904 and contrary to predictions, the group of aging women continued living in the house until at least 1918. Another account says a daughter of one of the members lived there until 1983.

By the time the women settled in the Washington area, newspapers and magazines from around the country took note of the unusual group of religious women who wore no identifying habit, lived a Spartan existence, and made “A Happy Home Without Husbands.”

The Sanctified Sisters

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Lucy Kidd-Key, Tough Victorian Lady

Born into an old southern family in Kentucky in 1839 and given a genteel education in the classics and fine arts, the barely five-foot-tall Lucy Ann Thornton was a bundle of contradictions—a lady ahead of her time who believed women should be educated, also touted the need for women to hold home and family above all else.  After the financial burdens brought by the Civil War and her husband Dr. Henry Byrd Kidd’s long illness and death, Lucy was left with three children and mounting debts.  She immediately set about recouping the family’s financial stability by selling land she inherited from her husband and by bringing suit for $1,500 against a widow with three children who defaulted on a note due for some land.  Lucy won the suit.  Her husband had held part ownership in a pharmacy and to collect unpaid balances on customer accounts Lucy stationed a Negro servant at the front door of the pharmacy to halt anyone who owed money.  In this fashion, Lucy soon shored up the family finances.  She then took a job as presiding teacher of Whitworth College in Brookhaven, Mississippi, which with its outstanding music department, grew to be the largest college for women in the south.  During the ten years at Whitworth, she developed many of the principals for educating young women that she incorporated in later years.

Her experience led Methodist Bishop Charles B. Galloway in 1888 to recommend Lucy Kidd to bring life back to the North Texas Female College, which had been closed for a year. Despite her demand that the board of trustees come to her Sherman hotel for the interview, they were quite impressed with the educational credentials and recommendations from Mississippi’s governor and lieutenant governor.  They probably also thought that Mrs. Lucy Kidd, dressed in black widow’s weeds, would bring some of her personal wealth to the college since it was customary at that time for presidents of private schools to invest their personal funds in the institutions and to pay for construction of campus buildings.  In fact, Lucy Kidd had less than $10,000 and she carried it sewn into her underwear to keep anyone from knowing her financial status.

Lucy Kidd-Key

Lucy Kidd-Key

Lucy received a ten-year contract in April 1888 with the understanding that she would get the buildings back in shape and hire teachers to begin classes the following September.  She immediately contacted her old friend Maggie Hill with whom she had taught for years at Whitworth and offered her the position of presiding teacher at a salary of seventy-five dollars a month, payable only when the school started making money.  Lucy’s eighteen-year-old son Edwin withdrew from the University of Mississippi to become the secretary and financial agent for the college.  Her daughter Sarah, who had studied music in New Orleans, New York, and Paris, returned to teach voice at the school.  Lucy also hired four of the best teachers from Whitworth to join the faculty.

She moved her family, servants, and furnishings for the school in July and immediately began traveling to church sessions and camp meeting all over Texas and Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) to attract girls and money for the fall semester.  In later years Lucy shared stories of the hot, dirty, and exhausting horseback and stagecoach trips she took that summer and of the scary nights sleeping in remote cabins and listening to howling wolves.  She also told of one fund-raiser where she was preceded by a preacher who told the congregation that music and musical instruments were tools of the Devil.  Then, it was her turn to encourage attendance and financial help for her college that emphasized training in the arts, especially music.

By the time the North Texas Female College opened that September, Lucy Kidd had rounded up 100 students, including the daughter of the governor of Mississippi.  More challenges lay ahead.  The college consisted of only two buildings and when it rained, a creek running through the middle of the four-acre campus sent mud flowing into the front door of the main building.  By the end of the first year she used $850 of her own money to purchase four lots and had a three-story frame dormitory constructed, which was named the Annie Nugent Hall for the daughter of the gentleman who gave the first major gift of $10,000.  Over the next three decades the campus grew by another dozen buildings named for generous donors.  By 1892 the school boasted telephones, electricity, incandescent lights, zinc bathtubs, running water, and it was the first school in Texas to provide a nurse for its students. The library grew and the school became the only Southern women’s college with science laboratories and a $700 refracting telescope.

In 1892 Lucy’s marriage to Joseph Staunton Key, a beloved Methodist bishop, posed a name problem for Lucy who enjoyed an amazing career as Lucy Kidd.  She solved the dilemma in a daring way for the times; she hyphenated her last name to Kidd-Key. She was also ahead of her time in her educational philosophy.  Even as she insisted that “her girls” always be womanly, she believed women had brains and should think for themselves.  While she did not oppose women’s suffrage, she did not approve of the behavior of some of the women who were organizing for the vote.  She wrote that women should be able to take financial care of themselves and their children.  Yet, she insisted on surrounding herself with her notion of “womanly” things—flowers and lace in her home and wearing long, flowing dresses that extended into trains.

il_fullxfull.430594455_k2viTownspeople called the students’ excursions into town, “the string” because the girls, wearing their navy blue wool uniforms marched two by two with a chaperone at the head and another at the end of the line.  Austin College boys gathered at various sites along the route to watch the girls.

The students enjoyed tennis and basketball teams and calisthenics.  Lucy built a skating rink in the gym and in keeping with her ever-present eye for fund-raising, she opened the rink to Sherman residents.  When the kitchen staff went on strike in 1908 Lucy hired the older girls to run the kitchen and donate their wages to the new building fund. When the strike ended she treated the girls to an elegant dinner at a downtown hotel.

Lucy’s interest in music led to her search for financial backing that enabled her to hire the finest faculty from all over the world.  The Conservatory of Music auditorium attracted the top orchestras and singers of the day, including Victor Herbert, Campanini, the United States Marine Band, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  She insisted that students have instruments in their rooms, which led in 1910 to 120 pianos on campus.

Enrollment reached its peak in 1912 with more than five hundred students; however times were changing.  The were fewer girls who could afford or wanted to attend what President Roosevelt described as “the only finishing school west of the Mississippi.” Less-expensive state supported schools began operating and in 1915 Southern Methodist University in Dallas opened with financial support from the church that had previously gone to North Texas.  Lucy’s health began to decline as financial shortfalls forced her to pay faculty salaries herself.  The class of 1916 was the last to graduate as Lucy made plans for her retirement and to convert North Texas to an accredited two-year junior college.  On September 13, 1916, one week after the new school opened, Lucy Kidd-Key died.

Lucy’s memory was honored in 1919 when the school was named Kidd-Key College and Conservatory.  Her son and daughter continued running the school for several years before the depression brought new financial worries and at the end of the 1934-1935 term, Kidd-Key closed.

Today a Texas Historical marker is all that remains at the old school site but the legacy of Lucy Kidd-Key continued well into the twentieth century as her graduates made names for themselves as educators, writers, musicians, singers, and sculptors.

North Texas Female College

North Texas Female College