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Mrs. A.P. (Marie) Borden

by John Polk

On a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1955 I had just finished dinner (lunch everywhere but the South) at the Blessing Hotel and had nothing to do because my friend, Benny Glen, and his family had gone off to see relatives in a nearby town. Sitting on the veranda of the Hotel Blessing, I rocked madly in one of the white rockers tipping it backwards just to the point where it might fall over and then forward until my nose almost touched the porch boards. I was at loose ends on this day with lots of extra energy and wondering what I might do to entertain myself. I had just stopped the rocking and was pulling off socks and shoes when I noticed two older ladies I had not seen before.

A tall woman with glasses with a bun hairdo tucked under a white cap and dressed in a white uniform dress pushed another much older lady in a wheelchair through the front door and on to the veranda opposite the side I where I sat. The lady dressed in white must be a nurse I concluded. After the tall nurse took her place in a rocker beside the wheelchair the two women talked quietly. After a bit, the older lady turned my way and said, “Young fella’, come down here and sit with us. Tell us what you are doing here in this fine old hotel.”

Reluctantly, I joined them, sitting on a porch rail facing both. No ten year old ever wanted to talk to two old ladies unless one was his grandmother and then only for a moment.

“What’s your name?” the old lady asked.

“I’m Pete, but my real name is Johnny,” I answered, “My Dad and my Sister just call me Pete. I don’t know why.”

“What grade are you in?” she continued with her inquiry. “You’re a big boy and I would guess you are in the fifth grade.”

“Well, I’m in the fourth grade but I don’t live in Blessing,” I offered. “My Dad is the preacher at the Baptist church and we just come here on weekends and we always stay at the hotel.”

“I am very glad to meet you, Johnny,” she said. “My name is Mrs. A.P. Borden and this lady is Miss Theo O’Neal who takes care of me. As you can see, I don’t get around too good anymore. There are many fine Baptist churches in Wharton County and I founded many of them.”

“We come here for a few months every year,” she continued, “because the old place reminds me of my husband and the old days when I was a young woman and all the land around here was Pierce and Borden property.”

“Ahhhh…nice to meetcha,” I replied, now ready to make my escape.

“Young fella’ – Johnny – could I tell you a story about me?” she asked. “I can see you are itchin’ to get goin’ so maybe I can tell you a story that will interest you. Then you can go.”

Facing the two ladies, I sat, rocking forward and backward on the veranda railing, and said, “Okay.”

She began.

“First off, my name is Marie Borden, but most folks know me as Mrs. A.P. Borden. My husband, A.P. died in ’35 and he was the nephew of Shanghai Pierce. Have you ever heard of Shanghai Pierce?” she asked.

AP and Marie Borden
A.P. and Marie Borden
Photo courtesy Ruben R. Hernandez

“I think so,” I answered, “because I heard my Dad say something about him. He was a cattle rancher or something like that.”

“Well let me tell you about Shanghai and my husband Abel – that’s what the “A” stood for -- and the “P” was for Pierce, his uncle’s last name.”

“Miss O’Neal, before I tell this story, would you please freshen my iced tea?” she asked, “And get Pete here a Coca Cola and put that on my bill.” Dutifully, Miss O’Neal rose from her rocker and headed off to the kitchen to fetch the refreshments.

“You know,” Mrs. Borden said, “I just love a glass of tea to go along with a good story.”

After Miss O’Neal returned with the drinks, Mrs. Borden gave me a wink and said, “Now I will tell you the story of Shanghai Pierce and how this little town got its name. And, I will tell you who built this hotel and why Miss O’Neal and I come here every year.”

Blessing TX Blessing Hotel Pstmrk1912
Hotel Blessing
Postmarked 1912, Courtesy William Beauchamp Collection

Shanghai’s real name was Abel but he was nicknamed that because he had a big chest and skinny legs that made him look like a Shanghai Rooster,” she opened, “and he lived from 1834 to 1900. He was famous around here because he was a cattleman who helped build Wharton County.” After a long drink of tea, she went on, “Ol’ Shang owned almost 200,000 acres in the county at one time…do you know how big an acre is?”

I said, “I think so,” and she responded by pointing with her hand to an imaginary rectangle of space in front of her, “Why from that building over there to that stoplight and back over there to the post office – that’s about one acre. And ol’ Shang had 200,000 of ‘em. That’s a lot of land and that made him a big man in Texas just about the same time when the State was a republic and had won independence from Mexico at San Jacinto. You know about Santa Anna and Sam Houston don’t you?”

I responded eagerly, “Sure I know about that because I saw Davy Crockett at the show and I’m going to see the Alamo with my Sunday school class next month. Also, we learned about it in school when we were studying Texas history.”

“Well now,” she continued, “Shanghai was my husband’s uncle so all of this (she waves her arm expansively to include the entire town) was part our family’s ranch. How about that! Would you have guessed that an old lady in a wheelchair staying at a little country hotel would have owned all this land around you once upon a time? I bet not…”

A nod of affirmation from me.

“Well now,” Mrs. Borden continued, “Shanghai’s brother was Jonathon Pierce and he was a little younger than Shanghai as he was born in 1839 in Rhode Island and lived to be 76 and died in 1915. I never knew Mr. Shanghai but I did know Jonathon. I met him after I married A.P. in 1908. I’ve been alive a long time…”

“And, let me tell you one more thing,” she went on, “Mr. Shanghai and Mr. Jonathon were direct descendants of John Alden and Priscilla Mullin who came to this country on the Mayflower in 1620 AND they were also related to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Have you heard of these famous people in school?”

“Oh, yeah,” I replied, “We had to read this long poem about these people who got thrown out up north somewhere and had to move to Louisiana…Evangel or something like that.”

“The poem you are thinking of is Evangeline and it is the story about French people who were moved from their home in Nova Scotia to the Lafayette area of Louisiana. They are now known as Cajuns which is slang for Acadians…Acadia was their home in Nova Scotia. It’s a very sad poem, but you have a good memory for knowing about Longfelllow,” she concluded, “I think you just might be a smart fella’.”

“Now why is all this history so important?” she posed and then answered her own question, “Because Mr. Jonathon founded this little town and built this hotel. See those railroad tracks over there? Well, Mr. Pierce built this town so there would be a business center for the railroad. He planned for this to be a big place…built sidewalks all over the place expectin’ folks would want to move here…and he needed a railhead so he could send his cattle north to Chicago and later to Ft.Worth.”

“So that’s why they call Ft.Worth “Cowtown” …I think we are moving there soon,” I asked and offered.

“What do you think he wanted to name the town?” she pressed, “and it wasn’t Blessing at first.”

I replied, “I don’t know. What was the name he picked?”

Grinning and winking at Miss O’Neal (who had look of having heard all this many times before), she said, “Why Mr. Jonathon wanted to name the town “Thank God” but the U.S. Post Office wouldn’t let him use that name because they thought some people might think the name was disrespectful. So, guess what? The Post Office folks suggested Blessing for a name which is kind the same as “Thank God” and the name stuck! Now isn’t that a good story?”

Marie Hough Borden and  assistant and nurse Ms Marquex, 1930s
Mrs. Marie Hough Borden (left) & Theo O’Neal (center)
in Mackay, Texas

1930s Photo courtesy Ruben R. Hernandez

“Mr. Pierce built this hotel in 1906 two years before I married Mr. Borden,” she went on. He built it so business men and other travelers would have a place to stay when they came here. He really believed this place would be a city because it was on a railroad and was in the middle of all the Pierce land. When you look around now you can see he got that wrong…it’s still a little town but the hotel is still here and I bet it will be a long time after I’m gone.”

I nodded appreciatively but she could tell that I had paid attention about as long as I was able and said, “Okay, Mr. Pete I can see you are ready for something a lot more interesting than talking to two old ladies. One more story and you can go.”

“My husband was Abel Pierce (A.P.) Borden and he was born right after the Civil War ended in 1866 and he died in 1934,” she said. He was the nephew of both Mr. Shanghai and Mr. Jonathon and he owned, and now I own, a big part of the Pierce ranch, which was called Rancho Grande. That means big ranch in Spanish. Today, most of our ranch is used for rice farming but back about 60 years ago it was very special because of our cattle.”

“What was special,” I asked, now swinging my legs back and forth with clear eagerness to get moving and away from Mrs. Borden.

“Did you ever hear of a Brahma bull?” she asked.

I replied, “Sure, they’re the cows with a great big humps.”

“That’s right, and do you know how they got here…to the United States…to Texas?” she probed.

“No…how,” I asked.

“My husband, Mr. A.P. Borden, brought the Brahma cattle to the United States from India,” she said with a big smile, “because they did well in the Texas heat and with Texas bugs like ticks.”

“That’s really neat,” I replied.

“Okay, Mr. Pete, your history lesson is done for today and you can go play, but we’re not through,” she said. “Next week when you come back I want to give you a book that will help you in school and in life that was written by Mr. William C. Danforth. Now, here’s a quarter. Run and play.”

“Wow,” I replied, “Thanks for the quarter and I will see you next week.

“Thank you Mrs. Borden.”

“Goodbye, Miss O’Neal.”

And off I ran shoes and socks left lonely on the other side of the front porch. I’d be retracing my steps to find them for Sunday night church.

I Dare You

A few weeks after I first met Marie Borden and Theo O’Neal we were back in Blessing for a regular weekend when I spotted the two ladies in the dining room on Saturday evening. Mrs. Borden motioned me over and said, “Well hello there Mr. Pete. How have you been since the last time I saw you?” Before, I could answer, she handed me a quarter and said, “Come around after dinner (lunch) tomorrow…I have something I want to give you.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll see you on the front porch after dinner tomorrow,” and hurried off to the table where my parents and Sister were sitting.

My Mom asked, “What are you doing with Mrs. Borden?”

“Oh, nuthin’ she just wants to give me something tomorrow so I told her I would see her after dinner,” I said.

My mother grabbed my arm, gave it a good squeeze, and said, “Behave yourself around Mrs. Borden. She is very old and important to Blessing. And wear your shoes when you talk to her. Don’t run around barefooted like some heathen.”

Turning to my Dad, she said, “Do you know his (talking about me) teacher called me on Thursday to make sure he wore his shoes on the Friday field trip to the Children’s Museum. It’s just embarrassing that he runs around looking like a wild Indian half the time.”

Twisting and squirming impatiently I am waiting to be released from close parental scrutiny. “Okay, okay,” I said and pulled away from my mother’s grip to sit next to my Sister. “I hate spinach, it makes me gag,” I report, and “Don’t make me eat it but I DO want some pie, okay?”

Dad joined in now, “Pete, lots of people would love to have that spinach because they don’t get enough to eat. Think about all those hungry people in China the missionaries are trying to help and clean up your plate before you have pie.” And, then for some final punctuation, “Wear your shoes when you talk to Ms. Borden and Ms. O’Neal and say yes ma’am when they ask a question, understand? And, one more thing, when you go through a door with those ladies you hold the door open for them.”

Nodding that I understood, I choked down the spinach with minimal amounts of gagging and thought to myself the poor Chinese could have all the spinach as far as I cared. Swallowing the dish of peach cobbler in three bites I was out the door for the Fondons – barefooted.

The next day, Sunday, I found Mrs. Borden and Miss O’Neal on the front veranda, talking quietly…Mrs. Borden in her wheelchair and Miss O’Neal in one of the white rockers beside her. Seeing me, Mrs. Borden smiled widely and said, “Why there you are Mr. Pete. Did you spend that quarter or did you save it? You know you’ll ever be rich if you spend everything you make, don’t you?”

Scraping a bare big toe on the rough gray porch boards I said, “I guess I spent it…but if you give me another one I will save it!”

“How can you run around with no shoes?” she asked, “Don’t you get goat heads and sticker burrs stuck in your feet? I hate those things! They don’t just hurt – they burn.”

“Sometimes I do,” I answered, “But my feet are tough. Feel.” I hold up a dirty right foot for her to examine the calluses from a summer of no shoes.

“Why your feet are tough as rawhide, Pete!” and gave a deep, pleasured laugh. “Now sit here beside me,” she motioned, and patted the seat of a vacant white rocker opposite Miss O’Neal. And I did. Patting my bare knee with her arthritis twisted hand she said, “I have a book for you that will change your life and make you successful no matter what you try to do in life.”

I was about to be bored to death, I just knew. Somehow, a kid just knows when an adult is about to start talking about something that will not be very interesting.

She began, “Have you ever heard of Purina dog food and Chex cereal?”

Now that question got my attention so I nodded in the affirmative and said, “I like the Rice Chex best.”
“Well,” she started, “Mr. William H. Danforth is the President of Purina and they own the dog food and Chex cereal. The company is in St. Louis. Do you know where St. Louis is? Mr. Danforth is a great man and a personal friend of mine. He helps me with my missions to the leper colonies all over the world. Do you know about leprosy…I will tell that story later…but today I want to tell you about an important book Mr. Danforth wrote, I Dare You.” She paused…and then from a fold in her dress produced a small red book about 5x7 inches in width and height, with a checkerboard pattern embossed into the outside cover. In the middle of the cover were the words, “I Dare You.”
I was not sure then what a disciple really was except for church and the references to Peter as a disciple. But I know today that Mrs. Borden was clearly a disciple for William H. Danforth as she began to explain the message contained in this small book. “Mr. Danforth believed you have to lead a balanced life to succeed – four-square he called it,” she recited. “You must be physically strong, mentally creative, socially magnetic and spiritually strong to be a success and you have to start doing all that now not waiting until you are grown up,” she went on, explaining each principle in greater depth and with examples from the book. Finally she closed the book and handed it to me saying, “Pete, this is now your book ”and,“ I dare you to be great,” she concluded and smiled, again giving my knee a squeeze and patting my hand with her old wrinkled one.

Mrs. Borden turned to Miss O’Neal, winked, smiled and said, “I think we have us another convert, what do you think, Theo?” Miss O’Neal only nodded that nod of a person who had witnessed the same scene many times before. Then Mrs. Borden turned back to me and asked, “How ‘bout it Pete, will you take the dare?”

This was more high minded thinking than I could manage in a single sitting and I was getting itchy to go. Recognizing my energy level rising and my attention level dropping, Mrs. Borden said, “Pete, look at me.” And, I did. “I am just an ugly old lady who is stuck in a wheelchair but do you know what I do?” she asked. “I go all over the world and work with lepers,” she said. “With the money I made from selling our ranch lands and donations I get from Mr. Danforth I have started more than 200 churches and have helped leper colonies in Africa and Hawaii. Why, did you know that the whole island of Molokai was once nothing but a leper colony?” she asked.

I shake my head no indicating that I didn’t know any of this at the same time sneaking looks at her hands to see if she had leprosy from hanging around so many of them. Between Mrs. Borden and Bible stories about lepers I was now pretty certain that leprosy was a very bad thing. And, I didn’t much like talking about it. Two worries high on my list were getting leprosy and car wrecks.

Marie Hough Borden, 1940
Mrs. A.P. Borden boarding a plane in Houston for a trip to St Louis, MO.
1940s photo courtesy Ruben R. Hernandez

Mrs. Borden was winding down as well and she closed by saying, “Pete, I dare to do the work I do; I dare not to let this wheelchair hold me back; and, I dare to help cure leprosy. I want you to read this little book and you learn to dare as well.” She handed me to the book and said, “Now you run and play. Here’s a quarter. Save this one.”

“Thank you, Ms. Borden. I’ll read the book and thanks for the quarter; I promise to save it!,” I say and head back into the hotel to show the book to my mother.

“Mom, look what Ms. Borden gave me,” I say, and hand her the book to look at. “Did you say thank you?” she asked and I nodded my head that I did. “Put your new book in a safe place before you go play,” she told me, “And, for pity sakes, put your shoes on!”

In our hotel room I opened the red book and read what Mrs. Borden had written on the first blank page in big bold script, “To Mr. Pete, I Dare You to be Great. May your life be a grand success, Mrs. A.P. Borden.” I tucked the small book into my suitcase where it would be safe. I was sure I would read the book very soon. And I tucked the quarter into a dirty sock, vowing to myself to save it forever.

© John Polk
"They Shoe Horses, Don't They?" February 4, 2013 Column

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