Sunday, August 9, 2015

Cordelia Bashor Matthews, 1865-1951 - Church, Temperance and Magic Birdseed

I'm excited to introduce Jim Letchworth as Guest Blogger.  Jim wrote this wonderful story about his great grandmother.  Jim is my paternal third cousin.

Cordelia Bashor Matthews was most commonly known as Delia or Dee.  My father, her grandson, always referred to her as Mama Dee.  I am told other family members called her Aunt Dee.

Cordelia Bashor Matthews
Photo: Jim Letchworth Personal Collection
Early Years
The youngest of eleven children of Martin and Susannah Bashor, she was born May 25, 1865 at Union Star in DeKalb County, Missouri.  Her family (farmers for generations) was in the midst of a slow westward migration.  Her father, Martin, was born in 1817 in Shenandoah, Virginia and her mother Susannah Sherfy was born in 1822 in Jonesboro, Tennessee.  They were married in 1843 in Washington County, Tennessee.  Of Delia’s siblings, the older eight were born in Tennessee and the younger three in Missouri.

Delia came to California with her folks about 1883 when she was 18.  The Bashors, or alternately spelled Bashores, were considered southern California pioneers.  The Covina valley and most of southern California was sparsely populated then.  The Bashors added a lot of population just within the family.  Delia’s father, Martin Bashor, and his brother, John Cooper Bashor married two sisters: Susannah and Elizabeth Sherfy.  As I mentioned, Martin and Susannah had eleven children; John and Elizabeth had seven at this time.  There is a family history story that I had ancestors who traveled west via covered wagon.  I believe it was the Bashor family though I do not know if it was this trip to California or their earlier migration from Tennessee to Missouri or both.

Some thirty years earlier the California Gold Rush had focused on the Sierras and San Francisco up north.  Los Angeles was considered a “cow county” with hot, dusty farm fields subject to flash flooding in the winter time.  There was no gold in Los Angeles.  The Bashors were part of a migration of farmers, many from the Midwest states such as Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and even Missouri who saw opportunity to work the land in the San Gabriel valley.  The Bashors were instrumental in converting the fields of grain to citrus, especially oranges.

I have a newspaper reference of a meeting at her father Martin’s house in Covina on June 20, 1885. The meeting established the first church building in Covina, a Methodist-Episcopal church.  This was about two years after he arrived.  Interestingly many of the Bashors including Martin and Susannah, did not stay in southern California but moved on to Colorado to the Longmont and Hygiene area of Boulder County.  However, Delia remained in southern California as did many other Bashors who grew to local prominence such as Delia’s cousins Madison Bashor, John (Jacob) Klepper Bashor and her older sister Martha (Ma) Bashor who married William Hibsch and, after his death, John Collette.

Newspapers were a big part of Delia’s life.  In 1888, as a 23 year old woman, she owned an interest in the Gladstone Exponent which was published in the Covina area.  In 1890, she and eleven other investors with $75 each started the Argus Publishing Co.  She was secretary of the company in 1895 when it was sold to James Louis Matthews whom she would later marry.

The Man in Delia's Life
The story of Delia cannot be told without her husband, Louie.  James Lewis Matthews was an energetic man, born in Bristol, England.  He was six years younger than Cordelia.  His family immigrated to Manitoba, Canada in 1883; the same time the Bashors arrived in Los Angeles County, California.  In 1894, after multiple Canadian winters, he sought the sunnier clime of southern California.  Looking for work in Pasadena, he overheard a man say he was looking for a printer.  Having some printing experience, Louie approached the man, offered his services and was hired on the spot.  Louie arrived in tiny, dusty Covina on a buckboard to work for the Argus newspaper.  Three months later he bought the company.  Three years later on August 31, 1897 he and Delia were married in perhaps the largest and most important social event of the season.

1901 Covina Argus
Louie remained as publisher and editor of this respected weekly until his death in 1945.  He was an enthusiastic and tireless promoter of Covina and the surrounding San Gabriel valley.  He helped secure the Southern Pacific railroad right of way through Covina in 1896.  The railroad was key to the export of fresh oranges to eastern markets.  He helped bring the Pacific Electric line to Covina in 1903; this was the famous red car trolley line, built throughout the Los Angeles basin which allowed the citizens of Covina to visit the seashore faster in those days than one can drive the same distance today.  In 1904, Louie became the postmaster.  He served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and touted the virtues of the healthful southern California lifestyle, living in the sunshine among the fragrant orange groves.  The Rose Parade on New Year’s Day was a way to promote the sunny California lifestyle to folks back home in the winter snows.  That is why the Rose Bowl games were traditionally played by teams from the West versus teams from the Midwest.  By the way, in the Arcadia Publishing book Covina, there is a photo of Delia accompanying the 1916 Covina Beauty Queen in the parade.

Louie was also involved in real estate promotion and multiple civic improvements.  He served on the Los Angeles County Grand Jury of 1910 for which he was the Secretary.  In about 1916, flood control was finally being addressed, and Louie was instrumental in raising bonds to build multiple dams to prevent the periodic flash floods which roared down the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains.  He was also very involved in Republican Party politics from the time of the progressives.  Louie played a role in the placement of the commemorative Mission Bells along the El Camino Real (The King’s Road) or Highway 101 in California.  He served as one of five commissioners for the California Department of Unemployment Insurance from 1936 to 1943.  James Lewis Matthews was my great-grandfather; he is the person for whom I was named as James Matthew Letchworth.

Delia's Family and Active Life
As a young woman, Delia was very active in church activities.  I have a small bible stories book printed in 1830 which was a gift to Susannah, Delia’s mother, and which she handed down to Delia.  I found several references to her participation in the Epworth League which was a Methodist association for young adults (18 to 35 years old).  Later Delia was president of the Deaconess board of the Los Angeles county Methodist-Episcopal church.  She was also president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  Yes, I do believe she was a teatotaler.  On the civic side, she was also a charter member and past president of the Covina Women’s Club.

Delia and Louie had two daughters: Lucile Diane Matthews, born September 29, 1898 and Ethelyn Genevieve (Gen) Matthews born January 8, 1902.  They both married local Covina boys.  Lucile married Horace (Hod) White and Gen, my grandmother, married William Pryor (Pie) Letchworth II.  Hod and Lucile relocated to Honolulu, Hawaii and Gen and Pie to Berkeley, California where Pie graduated from the University.  I do not know about Lucile whom I remember meeting when I was a child, but Gen, my grandmother, must have been quite rebellious as a young woman.  Gen played piano at many social gatherings mentioned in the Covina Argus but she also sneaked out and took an aeroplane ride without consent - a two-seater as the story goes.  There were other acts of rebellion as well; and unlike her mother, she was not a teatotaler.

Delia and Louie Matthews, 1906, possibly sailing to Santa Catalina
Photo: Jim Letchworth Personal Collection
I have a couple of handwritten letters from Mama Dee written to her grandson, my father, William (Bill) Pryor Letchworth Jr., who tended to save many things.  The letters are loving, encouraging and optimistic - very grandmotherly.  There were two particular occasions; the first was near the conclusion of a cross country trip my father and his younger brother, Jerry, took as teenagers to visit relatives in western New York State.  It was a road trip with a college student hired to drive the boys in a Model A.  On visiting Yellowstone, my father inadvertently stepped between a she-bear and her cub; she bit his leg as if to say “not a good idea”.  Mama Dee addresses that event and the aftermath.  The second occasion was Bill’s entering basic training for the United States Marine Corps during World War II.

Near the end of her life, when she was widowed, in generally poor health and with her two daughters and their families living hundreds of miles away, Mama Dee was unhappy.  I found many additional letters my father had saved, mostly addressed to Gen and Lucile.  Mama Dee and Louie had a home on Navilla Place in Covina but now she was living in a “board and care” situation.  She wrote letter after letter repeatedly asking why she could not live in her own home; she could not understand why she had to stay there.  I do not know the circumstances but I suspect she was physically unable to leave and unable to live alone without help.  The letters were so sad I could not keep them.  She passed away on May 17, 1951.

Stories - the Insight into Mama Dee
To close on a lighter note, I would like to share a few stories about Mama Dee; stories which I learned from Cecil Hibsch, Delia’s nephew, the son of her sister, Martha Bashor and a wonderful man in his own right.  The first two stories involve Louie.

The old phrase’ “opposites attract,” seems appropriate here.  Delia and Louie were physically quite different.  Delia was tall and slender as a young woman.  Louie was short and stout.  He grew more stout with age.  Delia was reserved and tried to act with dignity.  Louie was more gregarious and often accused her of “putting on airs” according to Cecil.  Apparently there was a certain social occasion at their home and Louie was downstairs entertaining the guests who were used to Delia making her grand entrance down the stairs.  Unfortunately, this entrance was ruined when Delia slipped on a rug, fell and broke her arm.  Years later, when Louie would remind her of this incident, she would just glare at him.

The second story is not nearly as painful (physically at least).  As I mentioned, Delia was very active in the church and on Sundays she made it her business to visit the inmates in the local jail and sing hymns to them.  According to Cecil, Louie always said this constituted “cruel and unusual punishment”.

The final story involved birdseed.  Cecil told me this story in the late 1960’s.  Mama Dee had some canaries and she found a magazine ad for mail-order birdseed which was guaranteed to make the birds sing more sweetly.  It is unknown whether the birdseed improved their singing but Delia was delighted after a few weeks to note a new plant in her garden.  She was in the habit of dumping detritus from the bottom of the cage outside the window and here was a new, fast growing plant that produced its own seed pods.  She would never have to buy seeds again!

Now the story continues that she had a small butter and egg business.  One day, one of the neighbors, “a Spanish lady” stopped by to make a purchase and admired the large seed-producing plant.  The next week the sheriff dropped in and informed Mama Dee that she had to remove this outlawed marijuana plant.  Delia was mortified that she had an illegal plant in her yard, but was angrier still that she had to start buying birdseed again.  Couldn’t the sheriff just ignore her plant?  She wasn’t going to do anything illegal; but no, the plant had to go.


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