Sunday, January 19, 2014

52 Ancestors: #3 Mary Esther Nifong

Mary Esther Nifong

My great-grandmother was born in Booneville, Logan, Arkansas on January 28, 1868.  She was called "Mamaw" by her grandchildren and Mama by her children.  Mary was a strong woman who kept a large family in food, shelter and clothing on a meager pastor's salary.  I am lucky that her daughter, Esther Rebecca Autry, wrote a brief biography of her called "And Mama Stayed Home".  My father, Robert Autry Brooks, also has written about her and I will include some of their information here.

As you can see from the dates, Mary was born soon after the Civil War. She was the fourth child and only daughter.  Her family farmed in Booneville and that's where she had a happy childhood.  She walked two miles to school, finishing the twelfth grade and wining several medals including spelling and deportment. Mary's mother, Rebecca Jane Spangler (Nifong), was her example in strictness and taught Mary to be a good seamstress, even having her rip out anything that didn't seem right.  Mary was devoted to her mother all her life and took care of her in her last days at the homestead in Booneville.

Mary was teaching school in the summer of 1888 when she heard of a young preacher named, Allen Hill Autry.  At the time he was travelling the country selling organs to pay his way through school.  When she refused to meet him, "Al" went looking for her. After introductions and some family dinners, he even managed to sell her father an organ.  Mary wrote to him and they were married three years later on 29 April 1891.  They first settled in Booneville where Allen taught half-time at the Baptist church (and half-time at the church in Magazine, Arkansas).

Seven children were born to them, with six living to adulthood.  Their oldest child, Ruth, is my grandmother. The next child, Allen Harvey, died in infancy.  Then came Esther (my middle name is for this wonderful lady), Mary, John, Paul and Daniel.  Allen Hill was a noted pastor, evangelist and lecturer for 40 years in Arkansas.  The family moved almost constantly, even in and out of the same home in Booneville.  I counted 11 Arkansas moves in Esther's biography, including Booneville, Springdale, Magazine, Nashville and finally settling in Little Rock in 1918.

Mary kept a big garden and a chicken coop. They took in boarders during World War II.  She nursed both her mother and her husband in their final years.  This is what Esther says of her:

We remember her as tall and slender, rather stately in her bearing, with a lovely complexion, gray eyes and the prettiest dark brown hair, kept long - and usually in a knot or roll on top her head.  She was known among her many friends as a person of Intelligence, Humor, and keen wit.  She had both musical and artistic ability.

I loved this picture of Allen and Mary - it shows such companionship and joy.

Allen Hill Autry died in 1932.  Mary lived another 23 years as a doting mother and grandmother.  She is the only grandparent that my father remembers.  She died in Little Rock, 26 March 1955, the year my father graduated from Harvard Medical School.  Here is what he has to say about her:

Mamaw was of German background with no sense of humor. She took care of 6 children on limited income.  Her philosophy was: Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, Or do without.  One time, there was something to do that no one would do:  so she said:  We will just sit here and do nothing and be nothing! She was very loving, but very strict and organized.  Everything she did was done with an object of saving time or money or work. She would do anything for her children or her husband,Grand-dad Autry, but expected all of them to obey her.   
The last time I saw her, I was leaving Little Rock to go with friends back to Boston and we stopped for me to tell her good bye.  Without any smile she said:  Robert, we are proud of you.  Nothing anyone has ever told me meant as much as that did. I did not see her again

Here is a picture of her with my uncle Walter, his mother Ruth and Mary's mother Rebecca. Rebecca died in 1927 so I think this was taken around 1926.  Mary is in the middle. This is an amazing picture of 3 strong women who worked hard caring for their families (and one very cute little boy!).  I wish I had known them but am glad for this chance to learn more.

P.S. I got a lovely email from a cousin who knew Mamaw well as a child.  She used to have Sunday dinner with her and still enjoys the taste of KFC (original) because it reminds her of Mamaw's fried chicken.  Now I know why I love it so much too!


  1. That is an amazing story, and an amazing woman

  2. What a terrific story and so lucky to have the writings of your father about his grandmother.

  3. I love that philosophy: Use it up; Wear it out; Make it do; or Do without!