A well-lived century

Published 12:20 pm Sunday, July 22, 2018

A potent personality—plus tact, talent, and tenacity—took Mary Hosbrook from the farm to a career as an artist and entrepreneur. Her life linked the 1860s to the 1960s, a century of expanding civil rights and women asserting their place in society. Mary Hosbrook, my great-aunt, was a pioneer in this post-Civil War period.

Educated at an art institute, one of Mary’s oil paintings made its way to the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., and she helped carve the pipe organ panels in Cincinnati’s Music Hall. But a single train trip provided a platform for Mary’s embrace of life, new experiences, and social change.

Mary boarded the train in rural Ohio, bound for a new job as an art instructor in Virginia. The sun was already setting, the year was 1895, and no one tells her story better than Mary Hosbrook herself. Come along for the ride.

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“The moon was so lovely that I looked out the window until 11 o’clock. Then we changed trains at a little two-for-a-cent station—Paris was the name, who’d a thought it—where the railroad agent was so excessively polite that I feared he was going to carry me bodily in to make me sit down. I got acquainted with two girls from Iowa who were going to Cumberland Gap to teach in a mission school, and we had a jolly time.

“There was a blind musician on the train who gave us quite a concert. He sang a song about a woman’s tongue, and, as we had been having quite a gay time, I think one old fat man had called for it on purpose. We cheered the musician, and let the fat man pay him which he did.”

This scene of songfest took place as the train wound its way through the nighttime darkness of Kentucky, arriving at Cumberland Gap at sunrise. For Mary, the fun was just beginning. The train tunnel had collapsed.

“When we got to Cumberland Gap, they told us we would have to cross the mountain in a wagon. The tunnel through it caves in continually, and they were repairing it. We got out at five in the morning and into spring wagons with black covers. The horses were bony and so were the drivers. I climbed into one with six men and the driver so I could sit in the front seat.

“I never expected that the horses could get us over the mountain, but they did by stopping to rest every 100 yards on the way up. I’m glad the tunnel wasn’t fixed, for the experience was great. The rocks rose straight up on one side, straight down on the other, and a little jump to one side of the road would have made pressed beef of me.

“On the summit we were in three states at once—Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, and I was in a fourth, a state of bliss. Six men behind me, one at my side, and the loveliest mountain scenery all around. As far as the eye could see rose one mountain after another. Some of them were above the clouds, and some below, but a blue haze hovered around the tops of all of them.

“The road was rocky, solid sandstone in some places but with beautiful flowers growing out of the stones and ferns that would have set one wild had there not been so many other things to take your attention first.”

Mary Hosbrook obviously had an artist’s eye for natural beauty and an appreciation of flowers that could take root in rocks.

And the wagon ride proved that Mary Hosbrook took a back seat to no one. She embodied America’s spunk and spirit.

Mary Hosbrook got married in 1901 and partnered with her husband in the book business in Kansas City. He did the office work, and she called on customers, plying the muddy streets of early Kansas City in a horse-and-buggy to place libraries with the works of Spencer, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare in the stately homes of the city’s elite.

My wife and I visited Aunt Mary shortly after her 98th birthday in 1964. She said that the candles on her birthday cake were “a blaze of glory,” thrusting her hand out to illustrate the magnificence of the moment. She was magnificent—and now a millionaire herself. Mary Hosbrook Kincaid lived to age 101 and left her estate to local charities.


James F. Burns is an Ohio native and retired professor at the university of Florida.