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Ravina Etta Pell 1876 - 1953

The women of a family should be of great interest, yet discovering their lives is problematic as histories have usually concentrated on the accomplishments of men. The girls are often either left out entirely or a mere footnote. The names of daughters and sisters are often only listed with a birth date, the remainder of their lives unknown except for a marriage date. Even the day of death goes unremarked. The woman is often only recognized as somebody's daughter or sister -- a very short line in a family tree. Yet it is the woman who gives her energy to building the family by nuturing the children; she keeps the family connected through hosting holiday meals, writing letters, and finally arranging the funerals and memorials. She it is who preserves the traditions. By her husband's side, she stands at the head of a long line of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There, quietly, she passes on no clues as to who she was outside this marriage, these children, or the events of her husband’s career. Her relationships, whatever they were, have left no written impressions for her descendants. Unlike her husband's background, a view into her world is almost inaccessible to those who follow her. What is there to tell? She bore the babies and raised them, held the sick through the crises, gardened and canned, washed and cleaned amid the clutter and uncertainties of day-to-day living... and all this while putting three meals a day on the table.

Such was the life of Ravina Etta Pell.

Ravina (pronounced ruh vine' uh) arrived in this world just as spring began to emerge from winter on the great American prairie in Mills County, Iowa. Her name, Ravina, came down to her from her maternal grandmother, Ravina Robertson who married John Ervin (1 Mar 1836) in Allen County, Ohio. Perhaps because little Ravina had an aunt with the same name living nearby, the family called this child by her middle name, Etta.

The fifth of seven children (Meredith, Martha Alice, John William, Jesse Larkin, (Etta), Lydia Isabella, and Luella May), Etta was the only one born outside of Nebraska. Why her mother, Rachel Ervin Pell, then 33 years old, went to Iowa is unknown, but it was perhaps so she would not be alone when the baby came. Etta's father, Henry Tatum Pell (b. 20 Feb. 1838 in North Carolina), was a teamster who hauled goods from the Missouri River across indian territory to Salt Lake City and points beyond. Maybe he had to be gone when this baby was due, or maybe there was a plague of some sort in Cass County, Nebraska where the family had been living. Or was it indian trouble that caused Henry to move the family to a safer place? Whatever the reason, Ravina Etta emerged into this 'veil of tears' on March 19, 1876. She was small and from the beginning struggled to breathe. Asthma and hay fever troubled her throughout life, but this did not stop her from growing up, working hard and learning what she could of wisdom.

This much-loved and treasured child became even more precious when her eldest brother, Meredith, died just over a year (May 11, 1877) after little Etta's birth. The family returned to Nebraska, still very much a frontier, when Etta was three years old. She grew up in Cass County, attended school when there was school and learned the ways of a farm woman: gardening, cooking, canning, home medicines, and child care.

By some reports, she was not a particularly beautiful young woman, but her quiet nature drew people to her. Her cousin, Gertrude Wood, remembers enjoying sitting near Etta at community and church picnics and gatherings. "She was always so nice and pleasant to talk to," Gertrude said. Growing up on the frontier, Etta learned to be conservative, not to the extent that she wore clothes made from flour sacks, but she didn’t waste anything.

When and how Etta met her future husband, Adolphus Orison Pearsley, is not told in the family, but it was probably a very natural thing. The Pell and Pearsley farms were not far apart. That Etta loved her husband was never in doubt. Their marriage (January 2, 1896 in Plattsmouth) when she was nineteen began a life of over fifty years of working together. Their granddaughter, Evelyn (Pearsley) Clark, said, "They were quiet people."

A grandson, James Edwin Pearsley, said, "She was just an ordinary, hard-working farm lady. She never enjoyed ...modern conveniences such as electricity and running water until late in life. They got electricity in the late 40's (1940’s), and as I recall they never had running water. One thing I do recall," Jim wrote, "was that Grandma took great pride in being an excellent cook. Best I've ever known. She cooked over the wood fired kitchen stove for most of her life."

On December 6, 1896, A. O. and Etta had their first child, a baby girl they named Agnes. A son, John, came in November of 1898 and then Ralph March 23, 1900. In 1902 another son was born, Henry (Hank) and on November 14, 1903 she bore William. A period of nine years passed before she was again with child. This boy named Warren, was born September 25, 1913. The family of boys was a boon to farm life, but Etta had little help in the house with only one daughter. The asthma grew worse, so that when Warren reached an age where he could help, Etta kept him with her. He learned to cook. Cooking on the farm led Warren eventually to a career as a chef.

Evelyn told me "When my two brothers and I were little, we used to spend a week with Grandpa and Grandma Pearsley in the summertime every year. ... Warren and Grandma took care of the house and garden, and Grandpa, [uncles] Bill and Hank took care of the farm and livestock."

Like most women of her era, she was not well refined, nor, was she primitive. Still, Etta did not ignore the finer things in life just because work took so much of her life's energy. She saw to it that each of her children had music lessons. Agnes and all five boys learned to play an instrument and sing. In those days before television and even before radio was available to that farm, winter evenings were made lighter by music and reading, games, and story telling. Yet, Etta never sat idle while listening to her sons or daughter. There was the endless darning of socks, or mending or knitting to be done. She made much of the clothing her family wore and they were always well dressed. Sometimes she got a chance to stitch a quilt top or make a special gift.

Later in the 1930s and 40s, her recreation mostly consisted of attending the free movies in town [Union] on Saturday night. Her grandson, James, remembers one time she had her son, Hank, take her to Nebraska City to see the movie, Cabin in The Sky. She kept in touch with neighbors by listening on the party phone, along with about seven or eight others on that line. The highlight of her day, was working the daily crossword puzzle.

I met my grandmother, Etta, once a few years before her death. I was about three or four years old and remember being fascinated by her, following her around and watching her work. She was constantly in motion. In her kitchen, there were eggs incubating under the oven, milk in pans on the back porch. I saw her skim the cream and put it into pitchers. There were peaches on a counter top which at some point she peeled, sliced and doused with the rich, fresh cream. In between, she found time to bake bread and pies. She did something in the garden. The small child I was then didn't realize it, but now I think she must have been both weeding and perhaps harvesting the vegetables we ate during our visit. She made beds, dusted, swept and directed me in the performance of four-year-old tasks such as setting the silverware on the table for dinner. She let me help carry the baskets of crisp, sun scented laundry in from the line.

And tea... she let me have tea when my parents said I couldn't have any. "Oh hush," she said to my father [her son, William]. "This is my house and she doesn't come for a visit every day." She poured it into my cup but added, "If you're going to drink it, you drink it like a grown-up... black with no sugar and no cream." I did drink it. I hated it but wouldn't admit it and asked for more.

What I recall most was the fearsome 'outhouse.' I was so scared to go out there... scared I might fall through that hole into the dark stench below. Grandma took time from her busy tasks to come with me and hold on to me. Her sharp-eyed glance through spectacles would have frightened me if her touch had not been so gentle. That was Etta Pell.

She lived her life the best way she knew how, keeping house, attending the Methodist Church regularly, and raising up her children to be honest, hard-working people. Ravina Etta (Pell) Pearsley died December 31, 1953 after a week-long illness.

Copyright © Oct. 30, 2001
Written by
Julia Pearsley Ryden
October 30, 2001

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