Elizabeth Irene Schaetzel was born in Appleton, Wisconsin to Phillip and Apollonia (Bloedel) Schaetzel on January 17, 1892. Beth’s mother died when she was ten years old and her father expected her to look after her younger siblings. Phillip was described by Beth as being “hard to know.” He remarried a much younger woman in 1906 and Beth’s relationship with her stepmother, Anna, was bumpy to say the least.
Things came to a head when Beth was about 14 and she had the nerve to ask her evil stepmonster for a second cup of coffee. Anna refused her request and this final straw prompted Beth to leave home for Milwaukee. Her aunt got her a job at the Hotel Carlton and the owner, quickly realizing Beth’s eyesight was poor, saw that she got her first pair of eyeglasses. This opened up a new world and Beth was able to get a job as a telephone operator.
She and a friend applied for jobs with the Fred Harvey system and they were sent to San Marcial, New Mexico.
From San Marcial, Beth was transferred to Dodge City. This is how she described her experiences as a Harvey Girl:
Not long after arriving in Dodge City, Beth began work as a telephone operator. She roomed at a house on Central Avenue and passed by the site of the new courthouse each day as it was being constructed. My great-grandfather, Merritt Beeson, was one of the workers and that’s how they met. Beth walked into a very odd family situation that I will try to explain when I am properly caffeinated. Nevertheless, they were married in March of 1913.
Merritt’s daughter, Betty, was only five years old when Beth became her stepmother and the two of them were extremely close. Their personalities and interests were very similar, which created a natural bond, but I also think Beth was determined to create the opposite environment of the one she endured when her own father remarried. Betty naturally had questions about her mother and Beth made inquiries with the State of California so Betty could have closure after Mary’s death.
Beth worked alongside Merritt in building and operating the Chalk Beeson Theater. I have some of the contracts and other records from the theater and have begun a list of all of the programs and events beginning in December of 1915. Several of the silent films can be viewed online and I have provided links where applicable.
Beth gave birth to a stillborn son in June of 1918 and then Irene (my grandmother) was born on March 11, 1921.
According to Irene, Beth and her mother-in-law, Ida, also had a very close relationship.
I won’t reinvent the wheel by telling the story of the Beeson Museum, which officially started in the 1930s. Much of the collection can still be enjoyed at the Boot Hill Museum. Here’s what Irene had to say about going out collecting with her mother:
“When the the museum was started, she was the one who rounded up relics and antiques to put on display in our basement. She went to people’s homes and was welcomed by almost everyone. [The] Depression had set in and people were more than glad to sell some of their old possessions. I went along on these trips. What interested me was the people and their homes (how they responded to us.) The dump, junkyard, and second-hand stores were also on her list for places to visit. Some of the places were just too gross for me so I would sit in the car. You had to see it to believe it.”Irene Beeson
Beth continued accumulating display pieces until the early 1950s when she began experiencing light strokes. These continued into the 1960s and ’70s. Although her health was declining, Beth was as involved as she could be with promoting tourism and preserving the legend of Dodge City. She regularly corresponded with people like Amanda Blake and some of those letters have been on display at Boot Hill.
Betty’s daughter, Vee Ann, called Beth Gongie but I only knew her as Nannie. This was probably a holdover from Irene’s nickname for her own grandmother.
I don’t remember much about Nannie but I do recall her being very unwell. We lived only a block down the street from Irene and I spent loads of time at her house. The strokes had taken a toll and Nannie’s diabetes was worsening, mainly due to her noncompliance. There was a bit of a dementia component and Nannie became very mean and hostile. She was notorious for pinching or tripping me when I would pass her chair so I gave her a wide berth like a mean horse. I remember being a small child and trying to help Irene block Nannie from getting sweets out of the refrigerator. It wasn’t a good scene, man.
Not long after the refrigerator episode, Nannie went to live at the Fort Dodge Soldier’s Home. Irene was just completely overwhelmed with Nannie’s health issues, both mental and physical. I accompanied Irene to Fort Dodge for visits and it seemed like Nannie’s health declined rapidly from that point. Her diabetes was uncontrolled and she ended up losing part of a leg. Even as a kid, I simply couldn’t wrap my noodle around how that was allowed to happen.
When Nannie died in October of 1984 at the age of 92, I felt like Irene and I had both been through the ringer. I was told I wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral because I was too young but good gravy, I had been there! In the trenches! I knew exactly how things transpired and I had a recurring nightmare for years that Nannie had come back from the dead and was trying to kill me.
Afterward, Irene constantly made a point of stressing what a wonderful mother Beth had been and how much fun she was before she became ill. She was a strong German woman with a wicked sense of humor and a hunger for adventure.
Irene was always telling me she wished I’d known Nannie before her health declined. Going through all of these records and photos makes me feel like I do.
Merritt and Beth were inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2017 for their contributions as cowboy historians.
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