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Mrs. Melvina Chessher (1833-1940) "The Mother of Jacksonville" (May 2018)

Mrs. Melvina Chessher (1833-1940) "The Mother of Jacksonville"

By Deborah Burkett

Since 1908, Mother's Day officially has been celebrated in May and has become a time honored tradition. To show our love, we buy flowers, candy or cook a special meal for the women who mean so much. For mothers who are no longer living, we pause and remember them by placing flowers on their graves.

On this Mother's Day, 2018, I encourage everyone to look to the past and remember pioneer women. Collectively they made us who we are. We owe much to these individuals who migrated west and helped settle early Texas. They survived numerous hardships, all the while keeping families together.

Highlighted here is one of those pioneers, often called "Grandma Chessher" or simply "Aunt Viny." I call her the "Mother of Jacksonville."

Melvina Ingle began life November 21, 1833, on her father's farm near the Blackwater Creek in Jasper, Alabama. At the age of 4 she moved with her mother and father to Mississippi, settling on a place 3 miles from West Fulton near the Tombigbee River. On the trek to Mississippi, her family presented a typical picture of the covered-wagon days. They traveled in an ox wagon, with Melvina's mother riding behind on a horse and herding several head of cattle.

Years later on February 3, 1853, Melvina married Hugh Francis on the Mississippi farm and both set out for Texas, traveling in a wagon. When the journey was over they settled on a farm a few miles west of the present town of Jacksonville, with one of her uncles.

While researching "Spunky Women" at the Briscoe Center in Austin, I came across several scrapbooks filled with old Cherokee County news. Mrs. Melvina Chessher was well represented. The value of this type of archival information cannot be overstated, especially when it contains quotes of early settlers and details of their lives.

For this article, I've gleamed information from those scrapbooks, while incorporating personal quotes from Mrs. Chessher. I had lots of material to choose from because later in life she became quite the celebrity. Each milestone heralded in various publications throughout the state.

Sometime after Melvina and her husband, Hugh, arrived in Old Jacksonville, they moved from the town to Carey Lake where Mr. Francis worked at a saw mill, contracted pneumonia and died.

Melvina married a second time, to David George. But then the Civil War broke out and husband number two rode away; never to return. He lost his life on a battlefield in Arkansas. Then came marriage number three to Anderson (A.J.) Chessher, he lived until July 15, 1889.

Overtime, this "Mother of Jacksonville" had five children, one by each of her first two husbands and three by the third. The Chessher children: Andy Jr. and Kate were born in Old Jacksonville and the third child, John, was the first boy born in the 'new' Jacksonville. Once during an interview Melvina said, "I was married three times in eleven years, and here I have been a widow oh so many years…"

As I worked on this story and flipped through photographs of Mrs. Chessher, I asked myself: is it my imagination or does she look stronger each birthday?

Then there she is in another photograph, sitting on her porch surrounded by huge bouquets of flowers, with an embroidered pillow at her feet detonating her 90 years. The caption reads in part, "…She enjoys good health and is remarkably well preserved, both mentally and physically."

I began to find stories published in the Dallas Morning News; alerting everyone to an upcoming event-Aunt Viny's Birthday! Imagine a birthday alert in a Dallas paper.

As Jacksonville celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1922, she really received press coverage. It was also the year of her 97th birthday. The city honored her in numerous ways; state papers sent photographers and reporters to interview this woman who seemed to be the town's "first lady."

One photo utilized in this media blitz was taken several years prior. She's standing in front of her old home on East Rusk Street, where she lived for more than 50 years. The place was sold shortly after the picture was made, and the house torn down. She then lived with her son, A.J. Chessher, Jr.

Among other things, Mrs. Chessher operated, for fifteen years, a hotel in Jacksonville. Here she was loved by her guests and grew to be somewhat of a town philosopher.

The Jacksonville paper provided a health and family update on her 97th birthday: "…It was 4 years ago she fell and broke a hip, but in spite of it does not need to use crutches, and gets about remarkably well…Three children survive to help her celebrate her 97th birthday: Mrs. Sallie Spruill of Port Authur, Dr. J. B. Chessher of San Augustine and A.J. Chessher Jr., of Jacksonville. Her husband A. J. Chessher Sr. died in 1889, at the age of 72. One brother is still living A. J. Ingle, 82, of Grandview, Texas. Originally there were 10 Ingle children; only these two are left…"

At 97 ½ more articles appeared. She was in the news every 6 months and it was well deserved.

Throughout her life it was said, she never lost interest in "modern folks and modern things…always paid energetic humorous attention to the things the world is doing now" such as two red letter events on her 1933 calendar: 1) Her 100th birthday and 2) the East Texas Chamber of Commerce convention April 23, 24 and 25. "…her mind is exceptionally alert for her years and she is keenly interested in preparations for the big chamber meeting."

On her 100th birthday in 1934, Mayor T. E. Acker, proclaimed November 21st "Mother Chessher Day" and the entire City of Jacksonville joined in the celebration. "She happily received congratulations and remembrances from her many friends..." I would love to have been there.

Then on her 101st birthday her portrait was used in Hattie Joplin Roach's, A History of Cherokee County. The caption beneath the photograph explains the book was dedicated to Mrs. Melvina Chessher, Cherokee County's oldest citizen.

She died at age 106 ½ on March 9, 1940. Yes, the ½ does matter when you live as long as Mother Chessher. As family, close friends and citizens mourned; they also marveled that she had been three years older than the state of Texas!

Melvina Ingle Francis Anderson Chessher possessed real pioneer courage. She overcame the obstacles of rugged frontier life; she weathered the Civil War and buried husbands and children.

Six months after her 97th birthday, on July 1, 1931, a lengthy interview was conducted by Winston Walker. It was printed by Texas Farm and Ranch, Dallas and subsequently re-printed by newspapers throughout the state when she died. In the article, Walker called her Aunt Viny, "…as she was known to the hundreds of friends who swear by her..."

Reading this old newspaper clipping, I learned many details about her life; the joys, as well as, the hardships. As Aunt Viny put it, "I worked hard by day with my hands and at night with my head, figuring out ways to get by..."

And get by she did!

(Burkett wants to thank Dr. Mary Alice Bone for suggesting she write about Mrs. Chessher)

Mrs. Melvina Chessher (1833-1940).

Mrs. Chessher in front of her Jacksonville home.

Mrs. Chessher lived to be three years older than the state of Texas at 106 1/2 years.