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Frank M. Cooley family

Friends from De Smet who traveled to Missouri in 1894 with the Wilders.

Paul and George Cooley were coming with us to The Land of the Big Red Apple… Their father had two big teams and two big covered wagons, and Paul would be allowed to drive one of them: his father said he could. – Rose Wilder Lane, intro to On the Way Home

Francis Merwin Cooley was born May 20, 1860, in Manhattan, New York, to Merwin and Phebe Ann Cooley. When Francis, known as Frank, was a small child, Merwin and Phebe moved to Greene County, New York, where daughter Mary Cooley was born in 1865.

Near the Cooleys lived several generations of the Andrus Newell family, prosperous farmers in Greene County. Eldest son Zina Newell, a longtime schoolteacher, married his wife Sarah in 1859. Emma Melissa Newell was the second of their nine children, born January 13, 1865 – only three days after Mary Ingalls was born in Wisconsin. Emma would one day marry Frank Cooley.

Merwin Cooley died when his son was a teenager. Frank worked as a farm laborer to support his mother and younger sister, and the family lived with friends. Shortly after he turned 21, Frank headed for Dakota Territory. He filed on a preemption claim north of Kingsbury County in April 1883. Following final proof, Frank headed to Nebraska to be married.

Zina Newell had moved his family to Schuyler, Nebraska following the failure of hops – the Newells’ cash crop – and the closing of the academy where Zina taught mathematics. Frank Cooley and Emma Newell were married in Schuyler on November 15, 1883. Frank was 23 and Emma was 18.

Shortly after his marriage, Frank heard of a relinquished claim in Kingsbury County, just five miles east of De Smet. In January 1884, Frank first filed on the land. While Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls were courting during the summer of 1884, the Cooleys were busy on their new homestead. Here, son Paul Emerson Cooley was born October 6, 1884, followed by George Herbert Cooley on March 5, 1886.

Like many homesteaders, Frank Cooley occasionally worked in town. He and Edmund “Cap” Garland rented a barn in De Smet for a year in 1887, and they worked together as draymen. The Cooleys were members of the Congregational Church in De Smet, and Mrs. Cooley served for a time as church secretary.

Following the drought years and financial panic in the early 1890s, the Cooleys began to think about doing something other than farming in South Dakota. In January 1893, Frank Cooley sold his farm for $1000, and the Cooleys moved into De Smet. In April 1894, Frank took the train to Missouri to look things over. While there, he paid cash for 200 acres and bargained for the purchase of a second 40-acre parcel to be purchased at a later date. The land was east of Mansfield in the little town of Norwood. Mostly likely, the 40-acre parcel was held to be considered for purchase by Almanzo Wilder.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s diary of the trip by the Cooley and Wilder families from De Smet, South Dakota, to Mansfield, Missouri, was published in 1962 as On the Way Home.

When the Cooleys and Wilders reached Wright County, Missouri, Frank didn’t take possession of the farm he had purchased; the seller hadn’t held clear title to it. Instead, the Cooleys moved into a small farmhouse a few miles north of Mansfield, but by the fall, they had purchased a two-story frame hotel on the town square in Mansfield. Here, they ran a hotel and restaurant.

After little more than a year, the Cooleys gave up the hotel business and purchased a house in town on Commercial Street (just southeast of Oak Street), located two doors closer to town than the house purchased by Almanzo Wilder in 1898. Mr. Cooley became a partner in the dray and water business, hauling goods and peddling water to homes and stores in town. Since the Cooleys lived in town, they took an active part in both church and social activities, joining the Mansfield Methodist Church. As remembered by Paul Cooley, their frame house stood closer to the railroad tracks than the Wilder home; the Cooley house was later torn down and a gas station was built on the lot, in line with the other buildings on Commercial Street. Although the gas station still stands and is sided in rock as is the former Wilder home in town, the structure contains nothing of the former Cooley home..

In December 1897, Frank Cooley became ill with pneumonia. Despite treatment by the doctor, he died on December 29, 1897, at age 37, leaving Emma Cooley a widow at age 32. Frank Cooley was buried in the Mansfield Cemetery. For a while, Emma ran a confectionery; she also kept boarders. Both Paul and George worked at odd jobs in town. Mrs. Cooley became a shrewd businesswoman, making both personal and property loans.

Paul Cooley quit school at age 16 and went to work for the railroad full time; he had taken a job assisting the railroad agent earlier and already knew how to operate the telegraph key. Mrs. Cooley and George moved to Springfield, Missouri, where George entered Drury Academy to prepare for college. For the next three years, Mrs. Cooley ran a boy’s boarding house in Springfield.

In 1901, Paul was offered a job as Railroad Agent in Blytheville, Arkansas, which he accepted. Since he was not yet 18 years old he had to get written permission from his mother in order to draw his pay in his own name. When George started college, Emma moved to Blytheville to live with Paul, and George joined them during summer vacations. Shortly after moving to Blytheville, Paul met Odessa Hollipeter, and the two started dating. It wasn’t long before Paul quit his railroad job and went to work for Mr. Hollipeter, who ran a sawmill and electric company. Paul Cooley and Odessa Hollipeter were married on Thanksgiving Day, 1909. They were married for 45 years and had two children: William and Marian.

George Cooley graduated from Drury College in 1907 and moved to Chicago to enter Seminary. After graduation he was ordained as a Methodist minister and was assigned to a church in New Jersey. After Paul’s marriage, Emma Cooley moved to New Jersey to live with George. George continued his education at Drew University Theological College and was ordained as a Deacon in the Methodist Church in 1910. In 1913, he married Ella Read, who died shortly after the birth of their first child. George married Frances Carr in 1917, and the couple raised five sons. Two sons became ministers, and three served their country in the United States Air Force.

No matter where they were living, the Cooleys kept in touch with friends in Mansfield, returning to visit as often as possible. In 1924, Emma Cooley married George Burney, former Mayor of Mansfield. The couple settled in Mansfield, but their marriage was all too brief. Mr. Burney died just three years after they were married. Mrs. Burney lived in Mansfield off and on for the next fifteen years. In the early 1950s, George retired from the ministry and settled in Virginia. His mother joined him there; she died in 1956.

Paul – now a widower – married Ethel Burney Morris (George Burney’s daughter and childhood friend of both Rose Wilder Lane and Paul Cooley) in 1957. Prior to Paul’s marriage, the brothers visited De Smet to see where they had lived as boys; they hadn’t been there since leaving in 1894. In 1966, Paul and George Cooley made their last trip to Mansfield together. They attended services for the dedication of the new Methodist Church sanctuary, donating two pews which are still in use today; one is dedicated to the Cooley family and the other to the Burneys.

George Cooley died in 1973 at the age of 87. Paul Cooley died in 1981 at the age of 96.


Frank Merwin Cooley family (OTWH; Mrs. Cooley is mentioned in a letter in WFH)