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Local History

Granny-Woman of the Hills

Nixa Press

March is Women’s History Month, so for this month’s segments of our local history series, Sense of Place, we’re profiling local women whose stories have shaped our regional identity…and women’s history more broadly. KSMU’s Emma Wilson brings us this story of a so-called “Granny-woman” from Taney County.

Rose Ellen Barbara Delilah Ingenthron was born in Forsyth in the year 1890. The sixth child to Eliza and Joe Ingonthron, she was given the names of three of her aunts and, as tradition demanded, the name of the Granny-woman who attended her birth, Ellen Kinyon.

Like many communities in the hills of the Ozarks, Forsyth is relatively isolated. In the 1890s, the closest hospital was nearly 50 miles away in Springfield. Trained physicians were few and far between, and rarely well-educated. Gordon McCann is a lifelong resident of the Ozarks, well-known cultural preservationist, and local historian. He says Granny-women were vital for rural populations that had little to no access to modern medicine or doctors.

“They were really important to a community. They were up there with the fiddlers and the preachers and probably the politicians if they had some in their area. They were a very necessary thing to the early communities here.”

Now, it’s a little difficult to define the term ‘Granny woman,’ but usually it referred to a woman who was extremely knowledgeable on the subject of childbirth and traditional medicine.  More often than not, she’d have many children and grandchildren of her own. Little Rose Ellen Barbara Delilah eventually became known as Ella Ingenthron Dunn… and a Granny-woman herself.

“Her mother was a midwife, and so, for all her life she was a midwife, too.”

Aunt Ella, as she came to be known, lived outside of Missouri after she got married in 1904. She returned to Taney County to care for her mother and eventually take on her mantle of Granny-woman to the Forsyth community. Her dedication was to her work, her community, her Christian faith, and her family.

“She was really a carry-over from the pioneer days. You wouldn’t find many people now-a-days who could be as self-sufficient and she’d grown up to be.”  

Her hard-working way of life was certainly common among people living in rural areas with little access to electricity, telephone service, or transportation. In isolated areas like Forsyth, attempting a trip to a hospital or waiting for a doctor to travel from another town could prove life-threatening for a woman in labor. Granny-women could arrive quickly and be retrieved without the use of a phone.

“If she got a call in the middle of the night, she’d go to it. [On] horseback, in the early days, and then by buggy in later days and then, of course, a car later on.”

Ella Ingenthron Dunn had less than an eighth grade education, yet delivered almost 80 children between 1929 and 1990. She also assisted local doctors with births and took care of countless mothers for their pregnancies and post-natal needs. Like many Granny-women, she was well-versed in traditional medicine and herbal remedies.

Aunt Ella is often remembered for her propensity to keep her mind active and her hands busy.

“She had 500 pennies she counted every afternoon. She had balls of twine she’d do using the twine out of feed sacks. And every night after she said her prayers she would recite the multiplication tables. She was determined to keep her mind and physically keep herself in shape as long as she could, and she did until [she was] about 102.”

Granny-women and midwives like Ella Ingenthron Dunn worked in under-served and under-represented communities…and they were often under-represented themselves. For example, Dunn did not have the right to vote until she was thirty and was likely excluded from regional politics for much of her life.

Over the years, her ability to share her knowledge of pioneer living led to numerous interviews for magazines and books. Her commitment to civic engagement lasted through her nineties. McCann says she was an active member of the Democratic Party and worked at the polls every year until she was 100 and began to lose her eyesight.

Aunt Ella was also a prolific writer, painter, musician, quilter, and rug maker. Her autobiography chronicles her life growing up at the turn of the century and her fascination with other Granny-women, like her mother.  It’s titled “Granny Woman of the Hills.”

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.