Jessie Sensor Willis – The Blizzard Baby

My grandmother Jessie Sensor (1881-1937) was born this date 136 years ago during one of the worst blizzards in Nebraska history. Her parents were the Reverend George Guyer Sensor (1852-1913) and Julia Frances Mendenhall (1857-1941). George’s Methodist ministry took the family eventually to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was there in Somerset County that Jessie at age 18 married Dr. Henry Noble Willis (1865-1926) who was almost twice her age. Henry had a daughter and a son by his first wife, Mary E. McMaster (1867-1898), who were only 10 years and 12 years, respectively, younger than his new bride. Henry and Jessie had two children of their own, Grace (1904-1909) and Noble (1916-1968), and adopted a third, Kathryn (1905-1972).

The family moved to Wilmington, Delaware where Dr. Willis established his practice. By 1930 with her husband deceased, Jessie still lived in Wilmington with her son Noble. Living in her household were Kathryn and her husband William New. Jessie worked as Assistant to the Pastor of Harrison Street Methodist Church. Shortly after Jessie’s 39th birthday, her mother Julia wrote a letter describing the blizzard that occurred during the winter of Jessie’s birth. Julia says in the letter that the current year’s weather had reminder her of the winter of Jessie’s birth and inspired her to write.

Below is my transcription of that letter followed by a few explanatory comments:

1373 Park Boulevard, Camden – N.J.,                                            Jan 29th 1930

My Dear Jessie –

“Once upon a time”, many years ago there lived on the plains of Nebraska a young couple. They were far from childhoods home and loved ones. Many times they had been homesick and longed for familiar faces. ‘Twas in the month of January – a great blizzard was on. The worst storm, ‘twas said, that was ever known in that part of the country. Snow was piled high, roads were drifted so that one could not find the familiar path. Many, on account of the blinding snow that bewildered them, perished within a few rods of home. Houses were so completely covered with snow that it was impossible to get in or out. A coal famine, caused by snow drifted railroads, made more terrible the suffering of those without fuel. Many perished from cold and lack of food. When relief came it was [Page 2] found that all furniture in many homes had been burned and that partitions were being torn down for fuel to keep the inmates from freezing – food was exhausted and had help been delayed a day longer many would have been added to the victims who had already perished. In the midst of this dreadful storm and suffering there came to this young couple a darling baby girl to bless their lives. She was warmly welcomed and how thankful they were for her safe arrival in the storm – also that there was coal in the bin to protect her little life. $26.00 per ton was what it cost but they were too thankful to get it to consider the cost and while the fire did smell like greenbacks they were not deterred from using it for, did not a new young life need to be protected? And no expense must be spared for the comfort of the mother and babe – now you may go on with the story. Rather a cold reception after months in that cozy little nest provided for the little stranger by the dear heavenly father. Whose tender [Page 3] care for many years has shielded that life midst storm and sunshine and today we pray that the same care and protection may follow her the balance of her life – Blessing her and making her a blessing each day. The present snow storm and suffering in the west has made me rather reminiscent. They tell me this is a sign of old age but I don’t believe it.

Have just had a nice letter from Aunt Maggie which has somehow renewed my youth. She has just passed her 76th birthday and writes a beautiful hand and such a cheery letter. Here [sic] daughter Anna is living in California and has located Annabell your Uncle Will’s daughter. She has not met her yet but has met the lady she with whom she lives a Miss Brown who is supervisor of music in the schools and who told her that Annabell has specialized in music and art and is now a teacher and a very fine girl. She [Page 4] also told her that Emma her mother had died last Jan. her brother Edward is in Chicago. I was glad to get this bit of family news. I would love to see these children. Dear Maggie thinks I should undertake the trip to see her. Well maybe we will some day when your ship and mine come in.

I must now hurry to a close as it is getting late. I came in to Grace’s today to keep house while she went to buy her coal. Began this letter yesterday was interrupted so am finishing it here. My chair came last evening. It is beautiful, my couch is also in place and now I have a really fine sitting room.

Oh! I must not forget to tell you that Glennie Davis of Woodetown is living near me and we have an invitation to take dinner with her when you come as she [Page 5] is very anxious to see you.

 Another item still – the burglars tried again to get here this week but as Doc has so completely fastened all windows and doors they did not make it. He and Grace watched them as they worked and saw them leave. He thinks he has discovered who they are.

Tell Kitty I say “Thank you” for getting my chair and to come see it. Grace joins me in love.

            Write or come up when you can.

                                    Goodnight –

                                                Mother

 What a wonderful story of the first days of Jessie’s life. I love Julia’s writing skill and sense of humor … the coal was so expensive the fire smelled like greenbacks. And what wonderful additional clues about the family’s current life are embedded in this letter. See the following explanatory comments regarding certain statements in the letter:

“Many times they had been homesick and longed for familiar faces.”

Reverend Sensor was assigned to Grand Island, Nebraska when he married Julia Mendenhall in Pennsylvania on Christmas Day, 1879. Both had been born and raised in central Pennsylvania. The Mendenhall family had been established there as early as 1685. The Sensor family, George’s father Frederick and grandfather George, moved to Pennsylvania from Maryland in 1805.

“‘Twas in the month of January – a great blizzard was on.”

This was January 1881. Records available on the web indicate this winter was known as the winter of the great snows.

“Many, on account of the blinding snow that bewildered them, perished within a few rods of home.”

A rod is 16 ½ feet, a common unit of measure of the period, and one still used in land surveying.

“A coal famine, caused by snow drifted railroads, made more terrible the suffering of those without fuel.”

An article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat dated February 24, 1881 stated that between February 2 and February 19 there were no trains on the Pacific Extension of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern line.

“In the midst of this dreadful storm and suffering there came to this young couple a darling baby girl to bless their lives.”

Jessie was born in Grand Island, Hall County, Nebraska, January 16, 1881.

“Have just had a nice letter from Aunt Maggie which has somehow renewed my youth. She has just passed her 76th birthday and writes a beautiful hand and such a cheery letter. Here [sic Her] daughter Anna is living in California and has located Annabell your Uncle Will’s daughter.”

Aunt Maggie is likely Margaret Hoyt who married Julia’s brother Judson Phineas Mendenhall, and Anna is their daughter. Uncle Will is probably Julia’s brother, William Henry Mendenhall and Annabell his daughter.

“She also told her that Emma her mother had died last Jan. Her brother Edward is in Chicago.”

William H. Mendenhall married Emma Muttersbach. Emma apparently died in January 1929, Will was still alive at the time, and they had at least two grown children … Annabell living in California and Edward in Chicago.

“I came in to Grace’s today to keep house while she went to buy her coal.”

Grace Sensor Miller (1882-1966) is Jessie’s sister who lived in Collingswood, New Jersey. She was Julia’s second daughter, born July 15, 1882, also in Nebraska. Reverend Sensor was assigned to Grand Island in 1879 and to St. Paul, Nebraska in 1882, but shortly after that appointment had to return east for health reasons, according to his official Methodist obituary.

“I must not forget to tell you that Glennie Davis of Woodstown is living near me and we have an invitation to take dinner with her when you come as she is very anxious to see you.”

I have not identified Glennie (Glenda?) Davis. Woodstown, New Jersey is about 20 miles south of Camden. Reverend Sensor was assigned to Woodstown, NJ, where Julia likely met Glennie Davis, sometime late in the period between 1886 an 1899. In 1899, Sensor transferred from the New Jersey Conference to the Wilmington Conference and served four years at Pocomoke City and Crisfield, Maryland and Chincoteague, Virginia (all on the Delmarva Peninsula). During that time, Dr. Henry Willis met and married Jessie Sensor.

“Another item still – the burglars tried again to get here this week but as Doc has so completely fastened all windows and doors they did not make it.”

Doc is Dr. William Edwin Miller (1870-1947), Grace’s husband.

“Tell Kitty I say “Thank you” for getting my chair and to come see it.”

Kitty is Kathryn Willis, adopted daughter of Jessie Sensor and the late Dr. Henry Noble Willis.

Well, that’s it for now. I have a trove of letters between Jessie and Noble during the last three years he was a student at Duke. I will share some of these in the future, although they are heartbreaking as Jessie was slowly dying during Noble’s senior year but did not want him to know it.

Thanks for reading …

 

 

3 thoughts on “Jessie Sensor Willis – The Blizzard Baby”

  1. Thank you for sharing these fascinating documents, Gary. Through the Mendenhalls, I’ll bet you have some early Quaker roots in Pennsylvania. At least, whenever I see that name, I think of the Quaker families who came to Pennsylvania early on. Whenever I spot Mendenhalls in my family tree, marrying members of my family, it always seems to be the Quaker branches of my family in which they pop up.

    1. Bill, not only are the Mendenhalls historically Quakers, they are also extremely well researched. Off the top of my head, I believe I am a “double” Mendenhall based on someone else’s research. Tracking the ebb and flow of religious affiliation has been one of the more interesting aspects of genealogy. For example, the Sensor family … originally Zintzer … was Lutheran as you would expect. George Sensor’s father Frederick, however, married a Susan Gray in Centre County, PA, whose family were serious Methodists. Surprise! Young George not only grows up Methodist but becomes a minister. In fact, his middle name “Guyer” honors a prominent Methodist minister from the region. Further, by the time George marries a Mendenhall, that family is not as ardently Quaker as they were earlier. And so it goes. Thanks for your comment!

      1. Thanks so much, Gary. I need to look up some of the Mendenhall history, since that family seems to connect repeatedly to my Quaker families with Pennsylvania roots. Doesn’t surprise me to learn they have been well-researched. That seems to be the norm for those early Quaker families.

        Like your branch of Mendenhalls, my own Quaker families tended to “play out,” as a letter from a Quaker branch of my Braselton family that ended up in east Tennessee after the Revolution says. By the early 1800s in their Quaker community in east Tennessee, almost all of the Quaker families had become either Baptist or Methodist.

        The Zintzner/Sensor family sounds equally fascinating. I find it often happened that families in the past named a child for a local minister they admired, as happened in your George Sensor’s family. My Methodist families are full of John and Charles Wesleys and Asburys, but several branches of them also liked to name sons Hope Hull for the pioneer Georgia Methodist minister who founded a college there.

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