A Woman Who Paved the Way For Today

After Minnie Fisher graduated at the age of nineteen with a degree in pharmacy from the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston, she discovered on her first job that she did not earn half the wages of the less-educated male employees. She claimed that remembering that experience in 1901 led to her life’s work of championing the status of women.

Minnie Fisher Cunningham

Minnie Fisher Cunningham

Minnie Fisher married lawyer and insurance executive Beverly Jean (Bill) Cunningham in 1902, moved to Galveston and began volunteering in local, state, and national women’s suffrage organizations. She honed her speaking skills by touring the country urging the passage of equal rights for women and universal suffrage. Cunningham moved to Austin in 1917 and opened the state suffrage headquarters near the capitol. A vote in January 1919 by the Texas state legislature granting full suffrage to women failed when the referendum went before the voters. Then, the United States House of Representatives on May 21, and the United States Senate on June 4, passed a joint resolution on the Nineteenth Amendment. Immediately Cunningham began campaigning to secure ratification by the Texas state legislature. On June 28, 1919, Texas became the first southern state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution granting women the right to vote.

Cunningham joined a national tour of ratification supporters saying later that she “pursued governors all over the west” urging their states to ratify the amendment. Finally, on August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state out of the existing forty-eight to bring the total to the required three-fourths of the states necessary to ratify a constitutional amendment.

Cunningham helped organize the League of Women Voters (LWV) in 1919 and served as its executive secretary. Twenty years later Eleanor Roosevelt recalled that when she heard Minnie Cunningham speak at the LWV’s second annual convention, the speech made her feel “that you had no right to be a slacker as a citizen, you had no right not to take an active part in what was happening to your country as a whole.”

Cunningham worked for an act in 1921 designed to lower infant mortality rate and for an act in 1922 that allowed women to have citizenship based solely on their own status and not the status of their husbands. In 1924 Cunningham experienced another eye-opener, this time regarding the need for women to get more involved in partisan politics. Eleanor Roosevelt invited Cunningham to join the Democratic Women’s Advisory Committee to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) where Cunningham found that despite the DNC authorizing the women’s group, it refused to meet with them. Cunningham managed to gain access to the platform committee only because of her membership in the LWVs.

5195dbf6e4ad87585d3e713901ae36eaIn 1928 Minnie Fisher Cunningham became the first woman in Texas to run for the United States Senate. In an effort to raise the status of women among the electorate, she ignored her colleague’s advice to assume a combative style that had colored past elections and ran instead on a platform advocating prohibition, tax reform, farm relief, cooperation with the League of Nations, and opposition to the Ku Klux Klan. She lost in the state’s primary.

Working in College Station as an editor for the Texas A&M Extension Service, Cunningham became interested in the link between poverty and poor nutrition and advocated alongside the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs to enrich flour with basic vitamin and mineral content. In 1938 she organized the Women’s Committee for Economic Policy (WCEP), which worked for a fully funded teacher retirement system. While working in Washington for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, President Roosevelt began calling her “Minnie Fish,” a title she carried for the rest of her life.

Returning to Texas in 1944, Cunningham ran for governor in a campaign against Coke Stevenson in which she was particularly critical over Stevenson cutting pensions to balance the state budget. To raise money for her filing fee, she sold lumber from the trees on her old family farm in New Waverly and Liz Carpenter served as her press secretary. Cunningham lost the primary, coming in second in a field of nine.

When the University of Texas Board of Regents began in the 1940s firing professors as suspected Communists and then dismissed the president for refusing to go along with the charges by claiming he had not disclosed a “nest of homosexuals” among the faculty, Cunningham created the Women’s Committee for Education Freedom to stand up to the regents. She helped organize groups to support the New Deal policies and worked tirelessly for Democratic candidates such as Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, and Ralph Yarborough.

Cunningham received a guest invitation to the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in appreciation for her work in helping him carry her predominately Republican Walker County. She financed the campaign in her county through the sale of used clothing.

Minnie Fisher Cunningham did not rise to great political heights. But, she set a standard for never giving up, for working to enact policies that benefited women and improved the lives of all citizens of Texas. She died of congestive heart failure on December 9, 1964.

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

The Four Gospels Railroad

The twenty-two mile rail line did not begin in 1909 as anything other than a central Texas business scheme to move Williamson County’s huge cotton crops to the Missouri-Kansas and Texas

The Bartlett-Western Railroad

The Bartlett-Western Railroad

“Katy” Railroad at Bartlett.  Granted, farmers and residents along the line were so happy to have a railroad that when the last of the track was laid in Florence on December 27, 1911, an excursion train arrived loaded with 250 to 300 people who paid $1 for the round trip. They dressed in their Sunday best and enjoyed the daylong celebration.

It was after The Bartlett-Western Railroad changed owners a couple of times and was sold in 1916 to Thomas Cronin that the route took on a new flair.  Cronin had retired from a highly successful career with the International and Great Northern Railroad and was looking for a new challenge.  He found it in the BW.  Cronin began by turning the operation into a family affair naming his daughter Marie the vice-president, his daughter Ida became treasurer, Ida’s husband William Branagan served as general manager, and nephew Thomas Wolfe who had been injured in his former railroad position came along in a wheelchair and may have simply supervised.  The entire clan moved into an apartment on the second floor of a brick commercial building next to the Katy Railroad and a few blocks from the Bartlett-Western depot.

Marie and Ida Cronin grew up in the East Texas railroad town of Palestine, but both girls studied in Paris.  Marie had remained in Paris until the beginning of World War I and earned an international reputation as a fine portraiture. Upon her return home, she won commissions for many of the portraits in the Texas State Capitol.  Ida, a gifted singer-organist, studied music in Paris, retuned to Palestine, married William Branagan and became very active in Catholic women’s work.  This rather unusual family set about developing a relationship with the 2,200 townspeople of Bartlett and soon found the community welcoming, if not a little surprised by their new neighbors.

Marie Cronin, called “Mamie” by her family, took the town by surprise with her flamboyant European-style clothing, wide-brimmed Parisians hats, and way more makeup than women of Bartlett found acceptable.  She moved her art studio to the second floor of the BW depot where she could perform her duties as vice-president for the railroad and continue with her painting. Ida Cronin Branagan, as BW treasurer, set about renaming four of the small flag stations for the “Four Gospels.”  The small flag stations were not actually towns; they were locales where farmers waited to load their cotton or other produce for market or to catch the train for a trip to Florence or Bartlett and consisted of a roof with benches on each side.  Ida had the gospel names framed along with the verses for each gospel to offer passengers an opportunity to read while waiting for the train.  For instance, the first stop after Bartlett was Caffrey and it became “St. Matthew.”  At the John Camp station, which became “St. Mark,” there was a small store.  A surplus car stood on an extra railroad siding at Atkinson that was designated “St. Luke.”  “St. John” was the stop on Salado Creek where the train engines refilled at a water storage tank.  Passengers began calling the line the “Four Gospels Railroad,” but it also became know as the “Bullfrog Line” because it jumped the track so often.  The folks in Florence called it the “dinky” and others said the initials BW stood for “Better Walk.”

Despite derisive remarks, the BW in 1916 earned $3,817 in passenger revenue and $30,327 from freight.  Cronin set about improving the BW service and maintenance of its equipment, bridges, and roadbed.  At some point a tractor was fitted with flanged wheels, allowing it to pull flat cars loaded with up to 130 bales of cotton.  Crews carried sand to sprinkle on the tracks when the train, carrying a heavy load, had difficulty gaining traction on the up or down grade.  When the BW secured the mail contract, it used Ford trucks equipped with railroad wheels to carry the mail.  Although cotton was the largest commodity transported over the BW, it also carried the needs of the communities along its route including lignite, livestock, forest products, fruits, vegetables, drugs and, furniture.  Cronin overhauled the trolley-style passenger car and tried, unsuccessfully, to get financing to extend the line to connect with the Santa Fe in Lampasas.

Ironically, Ida Cronin Branagan fell in 1926 while getting off the BW and died from her injuries.  That same year Thomas Cronin died, leaving Marie to serve as president of the BW while William Branagan continued as general manager.  Marie, William, and cousin Thomas remained as a family living in the old commercial building.

Marie Cronin relished her role as president of a railroad, even riding the BW to give attention to every detail.  She appeared perfectly confident in herself and her abilities and showed more self-assurance than the people of Bartlett expected from a woman.  One person said she “always dressed like she was going to meet the Queen.”  Others said her strong voice dominated the room and she showed other eccentricities such as her long-time desire to be a lawyer.  Despite never having studied the law, she took the bar exam many times without success.  Many others found Marie friendly and generous to everyone without regard to race.  One account claims she gave her Willys-Graham to her chauffer because he needed a car for his family.

In the 1920s and 30s the BW struggled with damage from frequent flooding that tore out the tracks and continually drained the family’s savings.  The boll weevil spread across Texas by 1926 causing cotton prices to drop from $1.59 to forty-five cents a bale, starting the downward spiral of revenue for the BW.  Some family members have said Marie enjoyed being president of a railroad so much that she waited longer than reasonable to admit that the BW needed to be shut down.  One nephew says Marie was what would be described today as a Type-A personality.  The Texas Railroad Commission finally granted Marie Cronin’s request to close the BW on October 11, 1935.  No one denies, however, that Marie Cronin and her family added color, charm, and a sense of excitement to life along the Bartlett-Western Railroad.

Minnie Fisher Cunningham Paved the Way for Today

Minnie Fisher Cunningham

Minnie Fisher Cunningham

After Minnie Fisher graduated at the age of nineteen with a degree in pharmacy from the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston, she discovered on her first job that she did not earn half the wages of the less-educated male employees.  She claimed the memory of that experience in 1901 led to her life’s work of championing the status of women.

Minnie Fisher married lawyer and insurance executive Beverly Jean (Bill) Cunningham in 1902, moved to Galveston and began volunteering in local, state, and national women’s suffrage organizations.  She honed her speaking skills by touring the country urging the passage of equal rights for women and universal suffrage.  Cunningham moved to Austin in 1917 and opened the state suffrage headquarters near the capitol.  A vote in January 1919 by the Texas state legislature granting full suffrage to women failed when the referendum went before the voters.  Then, the United States House of Representatives on May 21, and the United States Senate on June 4, passed a joint resolution on the Nineteenth Amendment.  Immediately Cunningham began campaigning to secure ratification by the Texas state legislature.  On June 28, 1919 Texas became the first southern state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution granting women the right to vote.

Cunningham joined a national tour of ratification supporters saying later that she “pursued governors all over the west” urging their states to ratify the amendment.  Finally, on August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state out of the existing forty-eight to bring the total to the required three-fourths of the states necessary to amend the constitutional.

Cunningham helped organize the League of Women Voters (LWV) in 1920 and served as its executive secretary. Twenty years later Eleanor Roosevelt recalled that when she heard Minnie Cunningham speak at the LWV’s second annual convention, the speech made her feel “that you had no right to be a slacker as a citizen, you had no right not to take an active part in what was happening to your country as a whole.”

Cunningham worked for an act in 1921 designed to lower infant mortality rate and for an act in 1922 that allowed women to have citizenship based solely on their own status and not the status of their husbands.  In 1924 Cunningham experienced another eye-opener, this time regarding the need for women to get more involved in partisan politics.  Eleanor Roosevelt invited Cunningham to join the Democratic Women’s Advisory Committee to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) where Cunningham found that despite the DNC authorizing the women’s group, it refused to meet with them.  Cunningham managed to gain access to the platform committee only because of her membership in the LWVs.

In 1928 Minnie Fisher Cunningham became the first woman in Texas to run for the United States Senate.  In an effort to raise the status of women among the electorate, she ignored her colleague’s advice to assume a combative style that had colored past elections, and ran on a platform of issues advocating prohibition, tax reform, farm relief, cooperation with the League of Nations, and opposition to the Ku Klux Klan.  She lost in the state’s primary.

Working in College Station as an editor for the Texas A&M Extension Service, Cunningham became interested in the link between poverty and poor nutrition and advocated alongside the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs to enrich flour with basic vitamin and mineral content.   In 1938 she organized the Women’s Committee for Economic Policy (WCEP), which worked for a fully funded teacher retirement system.  While working in Washington for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, President Roosevelt began calling her “Minnie Fish,” a title she carried for the rest of her life.

Returning to Texas in 1944, Cunningham ran for governor in an out-spoken campaign against Coke Stevenson. To raise money for her filing fee, she sold lumber from the trees on her old family farm in New Waverly and Liz Carpenter served as her press secretary.  Cunningham lost the primary, coming in second in a field of nine.

When the University of Texas Board of Regents began in the 1940s firing professors as suspected Communists and then dismissed the university president for refusing to go along with the charges by claiming he had not disclosed a “nest of homosexuals” among the faculty, Cunningham created the Women’s Committee for Education Freedom to stand up to the regents.  She helped organize groups to support the New Deal policies and worked tirelessly for Democratic candidates such as Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, and Ralph Yarborough.

Cunningham received a guest invitation to the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in appreciation for her work in helping him carry her predominately Republican Walker County.  She financed the campaign in her county through the sale of used clothing.

Despite declining health Cunningham continued working for policies that benefited women and improved the lives of all the citizens of Texas.  She died of congestive heart failure on December 9, 1964.