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Martha Scott Johnson
For more than a half century Martha Scott Johnson, of this city, was the arbiter in this community so far as the dates of weddings, parties and other social events were concerned. She celebrated her ninetieth birthday April 2. Even though she has not been active in business for a number of years the attention showered upon her on that natal day indicated she was one of Mexico's most beloved and respected citizens.
Whenever Mexico had a distinguished guest during the years of her active work in the field of catering, she was called in to prepare and serve the meal-all of which contributed in no small part to the reputation of this community. We are known not only as the home of fine horses and beautiful women, but also of epicurean cooking which is always served in the best traditions of the South.
Among these distinguished guests are included seventeen governors of Missouri from our own Charles Hardin to Guy B. Park. Also many Senators and Congressmen and other public officials, state and national.
One of Martha's interesting memories, and she has many, is about Miss Fanny Murphy, daughter of the Rev. Mr. Murphy, a local Baptist minister. She knew Miss Fanny well and the Mr. Nagle, whom she married. They were the parents of Conrad Nagel, today's well known star of stage and screen.
Martha's mother was a slave in the family of Hezekiah Ball, of Virginia. He was a cousin of the late Dave Ball, of Louisiana, Mo., well known attorney and politician.
Mr. Ball sold her to Major James Horner of Columbia, Mo. Shortly before the end of the war between the states, fearing slavery was to be abolished, Mr. Horner sold her to Dr. Damon of Huntsville.
About this time Martha was born. Dr. Damon, who had bought Martha's mother for $1000 with the tiny daughter "thrown in", as Martha tells it, hired her mother out to Major Buell of St. Louis, known as a famous Confederate spy.
When the war ended Martha and her mother were freed in St. Louis. At the same time Richard Ball from Virginia, seeking former slaves in the Ball family, brought Martha and her mother to Mexico with a number of others. They had their home in a large log cabin, on the site of the former William Kemper home, today at the southwest corner of Jackson and Clark ave., across from the Post Office. Ball acted as manager and assisted his roomers to get employment.
Martha has lived in Mexico since 1866. She says at that time there were no sidewalks here, and only a few stepping stones. She has seen most of the present day homes in this city built during that period.
They were erecting the present Court House when she and her mother arrived here.
She recalls the first colored church conference ever held in this city. It was in the old Northern Methodist church, located on West Liberty st. about where Melson's garage is at present.
The Fairgrounds in that day was at the east end of East Monroe st. just after it makes a sharp turn North to meet Love st. in Northeast Mexico.
The Wabash railroad had been built, but the Alton and the South Branch and the tracks to Louisiana from here, were soon to be constructed.
The first Negro school was held in the basement of one of the Negro churches. The teachers were two white women from Iowa. Later a colored school was built in the West part of town. Later it was moved to East Liberty st., and then to the present Garfield school site.
Martha credits the late Mrs. R.M. White with her entering the field of catering in which she won a statewide reputation.
Martha was a competent cook but assisted her husband to make a living by "taking in washings". Mrs. White for whom she worked, states Martha, told her one day that she should concentrate on her washing or cooking. She would do much better if she followed such a plan.
She decided on cooking, but continued to wash as a means of protecting her if the new venture failed. Mrs. White assisted her to get parties, told her friends about Martha's wonderful cooking and other fine qualities. The result was more and more party engagements. It wasn't long before Martha had to discontinue washings in order to fulfill her catering engagements.
"I found that I knew little about serving," Martha loves to tell. "So I went to Miss Linnie Allison, then teaching domestic science at Hardin College. I wanted to learn to serve properly, as well as to become informed on everything important in the field of catering.
"When I explained to Miss Linnie we made an arrangement whereby I was paid 25 cents a week plus instruction for assisting in the department. She gave me extra time and text books and I washed dishes and made fires and helped in other ways.
"Miss Linnie saw that I had the full course and I expect some extras. Hardin college didn't know it had a colored student and I didn't either. I didn't get a certificate, but I know if I had asked Miss Linnie for one she would have seen that I had it."
One of the most elaborate dinners she ever served, and she has hundreds of sumptuous repasts to her credit, was a wedding supper when one of the daughters of the late Joseph Barth of this city was married.
After the meal the late Rabbi Leon Harrison of St. Louis asked to meet her. He was so impressed with the delicious meal and the perfect service that he could not believe a small town such as Mexico could have anyone competent to stage such an affair.
"I want to shake your hand," he told Martha. "I want to compliment you on your competency as a cook and also the perfection of the meal and the service in every way."
The largest catering jobs she ever had were the wedding receptions of Mr. and Mrs. W. Wallace Fry and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bronough. There were 400 guests at each affair.
She recalls that 73 years ago turkeys could be bought in Mexico for 75 cents each, coffee was 10 cents a pound, eggs 5 cents a dozen, butter 8 1/3 cents a pound and milk 5 cents a quart.
"They were the good old days," commented the woman whose food was a must in Mexico for fifty years if you expected to serve the best. The first dinner she served, and her dinners were with large helpings and plentiful variety, was for 40 cents a place.
Here is a swank dinner party menu in the gay nineties that she served in a prominent Mexico home for fifty cents a place. Read, and let your mouth water, and your bank account quiver:
Blue Points on Half shell
Radish Roses, Olives
Cream of Celery Soup
Whipped Cream Nuts
Sweetbreads and Bread
Shoe String Potatoes Peas
Turkey and Oyster Dressing
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Aspic Salad Cheese Bundles
Ice Cream Cake
Coffee Bent Biscuits
Cheese Salted Nuts
On her birthday her sister, Mrs Ella Harada, who was 79 years old on April 2, too, came with her husband and son and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. B. S. Stovall, all of Kansas City, Kans. They spent the day which was filled with the arrival of many wires, cards and letters of congratulations, flowers and visits from her host of friends and admirers.
Mrs. Johnson has four children, Mrs. J. D. Sexton, St. Joseph, William Roy Scott, Culver, Ind., Mrs. Homer Peery, Wichita, Kans., and Mrs. Carrie S. Douglass, of the home. She has five grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
The writer, who was partially raised by Martha Scott Johnson, who spent much time in the R.M. White home when he was a small child, pays tribute to this unusual woman, probably one of the few of our present citizens, to have been born in slavery.
She made an outstanding success of her life, not only as a Christian citizen, but in a commercial field where for more than fifty years she maintained her position as the top in Little Dixie as well as in the entire state.
No wedding of importance or social affair of any consequence could be dated until Martha, as she was affectionately and professionally known, had been consulted. Her expert services were a must if an affair was to ba a social success.
It is interesting to note and indicative of her place in the community and the hearts of her host of friends, both white and colored, that they joined wholeheartedly in making her nintieth birthday a very happy one. - L.M.W.