A wicked stepmother…secret boyfriends…staying out late…even though Mattie VanOrsdol was a teenager in the tiny community of Floral, Kansas in the 1880s, her diary entries could probably have been written today! A vivacious, chatty girl, Mattie had many beaux and friends in her community, but her unhappy relationship with her “cross and unkind” stepmother, and the death of her beloved sister Belle, made a move to Topeka in 1887 very welcome.
It was in Topeka that she was pursued by a “jolly little fellow”, a postman named John Shaw, whom she married despite premonitions and misgivings. The “jolly little fellow” proved to be an abusive, consumptive drunk and the marriage was brief and bitter, leaving Martha a childless widow (her adored baby Mabel died) who became soured on both men and the evils of drink. Happily, she next married the kind Fred Farnsworth and lived contentedly with her darling Teddy in Topeka for the rest of her life.
Filled with well-known Topekans (Dr. C.F. Menninger, the Burlingames, Margaret Hill McCarter) and well-known places (Garfield Park, Gage Park), Plains Woman: The Diary of Martha Farnsworth gives an interesting glimpse of Topeka’s history. Martha notes such famous events as the public lynching of Nat Oliphant, the building of the statehouse dome, and the terrible flood of 1903, but her diary is just as interesting when she records such homey details as what she canned and how delighted she is with her new “suction sweeper”. By the end of her diary, one feels a real fondness for this generous-spirited woman who, despite many personal tragedies, truly enjoyed her life.