Remembering Viola Matilda (Tower) McGhee


Sadly, I have few memories of my great grandmother, Viola Matilda McGhee. Although I was in my early teens when she died, I saw her once in a while at family gatherings and was too busy being a kid to interact with her. My memories are vague ones. She was a little old lady dressed in old-fashioned dark dresses. We had to be quiet and not boisterous around this elderly woman who we saw infrequently.

Here is Viola Matilda McGhee with some of her great grandchildren in 1953.

Here is Viola Matilda McGhee with some of her great grandchildren in 1953. Susan and Owen Martin (standing), Virginia, Karen and Cindy Martin (seated) and our second cousin Leslie DeWayne Paugh Jr.

She was born on the 3rd of February 1873 in Carrolton, Missouri. Her father, Abraham Bates Tower, survived the Civil War and the horrors of being a prisoner of war at Andersonville Prison. Her mother, Nancy Angeline (Long) Tower, must have been a strong woman to care for her children during the war years and more children plus an invalid husband after that. 

The Tower family and six month old baby Viola Matilda traveled by wagon to Hilltop, Arkansas  Seven of the family members lived in the wagon for most of the rest of the winter while Abraham herded cattle there. The baby lived with the bosses’ wife during the winter. The family called the baby Tildy to differentiate between the infant and her caretaker who was also a Matilda.

I believe the government gave land to veterans there, but haven’t been able to verify that.

The family moved back to Missouri for the next 10 years but must have returned now and then their home place in Arkansas. The two places were about 300 miles apart.

At 21, Viola Matilda married Samuel Newton McGhee in Boone, Arkansas.

Sam and Viola Matilda McGhee with Clarence and Jesse

Sam and Viola Matilda McGhee with Clarence and Jesse, about 1898.

They had 6 children while living in Arkansas and then 3 more after they moved to Tyro, Kansas. Her parents lived there and her sisters needed her help nursing her mother, Nancy Angeline, who had a stroke. They remained in Tyro and the Coffeyville area even after her mother’s death in 1909.

Sam & Matilda 1903, with their children Clarence 7; Jesse 5;  Roy 2;  Bertha baby.

Sam & Matilda 1903, with their children Clarence 7; Jesse 5; Roy 2; Bertha baby.

Her husband, Sam McGhee worked at the Tyro Glass Plant as did his oldest son, my grandfather, Clarence McGhee. In 1913, the family followed the glass plant which moved to Sand Springs, Oklahoma, but the next year, moved back to Kansas.

The two youngest boys, Elmer and Austin, contracted polio in 1913 and both were crippled by it. Read more of that story collected by my mother from Tildy’s daughter Bertha. The family got a Shetland pony for Elmer to ride the mile to school.

Elmer and Austin McGhee, Tyro, Kansas

Elmer and Austin McGhee, Tyro, Kansas

The family had some sad years. The oldest son married and went into the army in 1918, ending up in trenches in France. In 1919, Samuel McGhee disappeared for 3 months. He’d been attacked and beaten, lost his memory but finally recovered to return to his family.

Sadly, their child Elmer died at age 11. The next year, 1922, Samuel died in an oil field accident. It was difficult for the family without their bread earner in that time before social security.

Samuel McGhee

Samuel McGhee

Viola Matilda’s children grew up, married and had families of their own. In her old age, she took turns staying with her children and grandchildren. She didn’t have a place of her own.

When she died at 91, she was visiting her daughter Bertha, who lived in Alaska. Bertha worked at a home for orphaned native children. Viola Matilda fell, breaking her hip which led to her death. She is buried near Coffeyville, Kansas in Deering Cemetery next to her father and mother.

Viola Matilda (Tower) McGhee with 5 of her grown children.

Viola Matilda (Tower) McGhee with 6 of her grown children.


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