I was thinking about Mariah Watkins’ white picket fence as I walked along Wildcat Boulevard the other morning. I am sure it was because I finished repairing, scraping, and repainting the fence a week or so ago.

I was thinking about Mariah Watkins’ white picket fence as I walked along Wildcat Boulevard the other morning. I am sure it was because I finished repairing, scraping, and repainting the fence a week or so ago.
But, I must start in the beginning of the story about Mariah Watkins’ fence.
Sometime in the early 1980s I was doing some research for an article for a writing class at Southwest Missouri State University. I had chosen Mariah Watkins, the Neosho baby nurse, and her husband Andy as my topic.
Mariah Watkins had taken in George Washington Carver as a stepson when he came to Neosho to begin his education. He stayed with the Watkins family for the time he attended the little school next door to the Watkins home.
Many people claim she gave George Washington Carver the majority of his religious training, which was an important part of his very successful life. Mariah Watkins also had been the baby nurse for Neosho’s most famous artist, Thomas Hart Benton.
In those days, the family attempted to keep new mothers in bed for up to two weeks. Mariah Watkins was hired to keep the house and nurse the new mother, the baby, and other children during this time.
As part of my research on this fine lady, I went to the Newton County Courthouse and searched for her will. She died in 1925. In her will I found that when she died she had no money. She had been living with Calvin Jefferson in Granby. Jefferson had gone to school with George Washington Carver and was considered a stepson to Mariah Jefferson.
Because she had no money, all the requests in her will were never fulfilled. Jefferson and another local Neosho man had provided enough money for her burial in Hazelwood Cemetery and a tombstone set on her grave.
An unfulfilled item in the will that bothered me the most was that she requested a white picket fence be built around the graves of her and her husband Andy. It was never built. I felt moved to honor her request.
With help from my friend Glynn Sanders, I made the pickets for the fence. Then I assembled the four sides of the fence in my basement.
Then late one evening, Jim and Gladys Gage, Howard and Mayme Patterson, Andrew and Mary Jean Barker, Gentry Davis, Norma Crews, Mildred Harris, Amos Porter, and Kay helped erect and paint the white picket fence around Mariah and Andy Watkins’ graves, 60 years after her death.
The white picket fence was completed in 1985, thirty-three years ago. I continue to maintain it, checking on it two or three times a year. Over the years, others have helped with the maintenance, but this year I scraped and painted the picket fence myself.
Take a walk, use those signal lights, don’t be afraid to take on unusual projects, watch for pedestrians, and see what you notice while passing along Wildcat Boulevard.
 

 Russell Hively writes a weekly column for the Daily News.