Former chamber chief recounts her grandmother’s pioneer life

Barbara “Jo” Cecil displays her biography of her grandmother during a presentation Jan. 12 at a gathering of the the Papillion Area Historical Society at the old Portal Schoolhouse in Papillion.

Anna Margaret Christy found a friend in Barbara “Jo” Cecil.

Anna couldn’t know that her grandaughter would one day take the stories of her pioneer past and record them for posterity.

Barbara, better known around Bellevue as former president of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, Jo Cecil, didn’t plan to become an author until she decided to put her retirement to good use.

“I needed something to do after my husband died, and I decided that these stories that had been floating in the back of my mind for years and years should be told,” she said.

The Papillion-Area Historical Society Saturday hosted Cecil at the historic Portal School across from Papillion City Hall.

Cecil, 84, told the story of her grandmother, whose life bridged the last period of the pioneer age and the arrival of the modern industrial world.

Grandmother Anna, Cecil recounted, was born in Greene County, Ill., in 1866, and at the age 3 traveled with her family in a covered wagon to Nebraska Territory, where the Christys set up home on a wide and unpopulated prairie in Richardson County at the extreme southeast corner of the soon-to-be state.

At the age of 16, Anna began teaching at Gooseberry Creek School, a pioneer schoolhouse in Richardson County.

She married Wilmot Fish and was widowed in 1926 at the age of 60.

Nine children were born of the marriage.

Ruby Agnes, the fifth child and fourth girl, was Cecil’s mother and the reason why Cecil found herself fascinated by the tales of this very old woman in the years immediately following World War II.

Grandmother Anna was well into her 80s when young Jo began paying attention to her stories in those post-war years, absorbing the story that is now laid out in the approximately 200 pages of “Anna Margaret Christy: Her Story.”

The book, self-published by Cecil, is available on in hardback, paperback and electronic versions.

“She was already very old when I knew her,” Cecil said. “But I remember how strong she was. She was still pushing a push lawn mower around her house.”

After her husband died in 1926, Grandmother Anna, who had known nothing but prairies and farms, now in her seventh decade, rented or sold her Richardson County farm and moved to Lincoln because her son wanted to attend university there.

“This was a woman who had lived without a near neighbor all her life,” Cecil said. “But she moved to the big city where she managed an apartment house across from the Nebraska statehouse, which was being built at the time. I remember visiting her there.”

Grandmother Anna died in 1953 at the age of 86.

In recording Anna’s life’s story, Cecil said she hopes to provide inspiration to other women, teaching the lesson that adversity can be overcome through faith and persistence.

In an introduction, Cecil writes that Grandmother Anna’s life was “a credit to her faith in God and devotion to learning and living a productive life.”

She was one of many, Cecil told the Papillion gathering Saturday, who laid the foundations for modern America.

“Those pioneers, our ancestors,” she said, “we should respect and honor them for the sacrifices they made.”

Grandmother Anna is buried in Prairie Union Cemetery in the village of Shubert, Richardson County.

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