|Territorial Women's Memorial Rose Garden|
REBECCA JEAN BELL GARDNER
Rebecca Jean was born on August 30, 1856, on a farm in Clay County, Missouri, third child and second daughter of George Washington and Frances Ann Long Bell. Her education was acquired in ungraded country schools and at a normal school in Warrenburg, Missouri. Then she taught school, and out of a salary that would seem a pittance by today’s standards, she saved money for trips to Washington, D. C., Virginia and New Orleans…. the highlights of her early life.
Rebecca Jean was always restless--longing to go, to see, to learn. Her children called her Mrs. Marco Polo, soon shortened to Mrs. Marco. She felt a little sheepish about the title though it pleased her. Travel began early.
Her first journey was to Nebraska during the Civil War, going in wagons with the Union soldiers doing the driving. In southern Missouri the women and children of Confederate sympathizers were forcibly removed from the neighborhood for their safety. At that time, the country was harassed by guerilla fighting and blood feuds.
The society in which she grew up was provincial (narrowly religious) and curiously formal. Dancing, card games and liquor in any form were anathemas. Her closest and dearest friends remained “Miss” Mattie Howe and “Miss” Sally Hughes to the end of the chapter. Her husband was “Mr.” Gardner. No one ever heard her call him Jim. Or even James.
She married late (June 30, 1890) at age 34, a proper old maid. She came to Prescott a bride, arriving via the old Bullock Railroad that left the main line at Seligman. With such a background, how could she possibly like Prescott, Arizona? It was a territory 1,500 miles from what she considered civilization. She didn’t and rather tactlessly said so. Her husband was grieved, but silent.
Though she came to love Prescott later, in the beginning it seemed desolate and forlorn. The mountains depressed her; the pines were alien; the oak brush looked dirty; there were no gardens of green trees. True, the people were kind and friendly, but she didn’t know them. It took a long while. Whiskey Row was flourishing.
Time passed, as it has a way of doing. Rebecca and James had two children: daughter Mary (Mrs. William F.) Sisson and son Gail Irwin Gardner. The children were reared by the Spartan code of “Do it because I tell you to, and do it at once.” That may have smarted then, but now they offer a humble tribute of gratitude for the discipline and self-control such training gave them.
Rebecca Jean was that rara avis, a pretty woman without a trace of vanity. To be “clean and neat” was enough. There was one exception. A lady must not be sunburned, nor have rough hands. "Once during our childhood," her daughter wrote, "my brother and I hauled her to the summit of Thumb Butte, she holding a parasol to protect her complexion."
I can cite another example, continued Mrs. Sisson, "During the first World War, Mother and Father lived for a while on my brother’s ranch in Skull Valley to keep an eye on his property while he was in the service. Mother went to the General Store for daily mail; she rode a ranch horse astride, and carried an open umbrella."
Advancing years never dulled Rebecca’s energy and zest for adventure. When she was in her late 70s, she and her daughter went on a cruise to Alaska. Each day found her daughter weary to the bone in trying to keep up with her. It was Rebecca who toiled over a steep, muddy path and approached “closest to the glacier."
When in the Northwest Territory, Rebecca walked farther toward the Arctic Circle than anyone else in the party. When over 80, she insisted on going to Hawaii alone, where she had a glorious time. She talked openly to utter strangers who responded by opening their homes and hearts to her. Well done, indeed, Mrs. Marco.
On the evening of her 100th birthday that was celebrated at her daughter’s home in Pasadena, California. Rebecca was in her glory. Mrs. Sisson writes “I sat with her while she ate a simple supper. From the terrace outside came sounds of soft laughter, the clink of silver and glass. Prescott friends who had come to do her honor were having dinner and drinking to her health with champagne. Irony there? Not at all, she had mellowed.
"In the late afternoon, Rebecca held court, looking very pretty in black lace with a lei of white orchids from Honolulu. The house was filled with flowers. Senator Goldwater sent red roses, a telegram and a personal letter. An Indian basket was heaped with notes and cards of congratulations, among them one from the White House signed by President Eisenhower. She was growing drowsy, and it was time I returned to the guests. She looked very tiny under the white covers. I bent to kiss her and she said, 'This has been the happiest day of my Life.’"
“The expression ‘After she was made, they broke the mold’ applied perfectly to my mother. There was never anyone like her. When she was old she resented being called a pioneer. ‘I arrived on the train’ she countered with fine pride.”
Rebecca died on February 13, 1957, at her daughter’s home in California. Services were conducted in Prescott, and she was buried beside her husband in Mountain View Cemetery. Her daughter-in-law, Delia Gist Gardner, is also commemorated in the Rose Garden.
Donor: Evelyn Merritt
|Additional documentation and photographs may be available in the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives and Library.|