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Telling the history of Claremore…one story at a time

This article was published in the Claremore Progress June 27, 1993 by Dorothy Willman.

Zelda Bear first came to Claremore as a young girl.  She, her mother, and her baby brother were visiting her uncles, Bob and Clarence, who had jointly established a furniture business in the Masonic Lodge building here.

She doesn’t remember much about Claremore from that early visit.  Both uncles had large homes and acreages on South Normal Street near the cemetery.  She also recalls a statue of an Indian woman that was in the yard of the Leo Moore House, later the home of Dr. Douglas Anderson.

After the visit, the family went back to Quincy, Illinois, where Zelda attended grade school.  She started high school in Springfield, Illinois, and then moved to Knox City, Missouri, when she was a sophomore. Her first year of college was at the University of Missouri on a debating scholarship, earned by being a state champion debater.

She returned to Claremore in 1923 looking for a teaching job.  Her mother, wanting her to be in a place where she was protected and supervised, wrote Bob and asked if there were teaching positions open in Claremore.  “My uncle got me that first job,” says Mrs. Ashley.  She taught eighth grade in the new high school building on 4thStreet.”

On September 16, 1925 Zelda Bear married Elmer Ashley.  He had come to Claremore to take radium baths and stayed on, going to work as a clerk in the Sequoyah Hotel.  Mrs. Ashley changed teaching positions then, because “They didn’t hire married women here.”   She taught in Inola for five years and spent another five years in other community schools before returning to Claremore school rooms.

The Ashleys lived at the Sequoyah Hotel during the first five years of their marriage.  She says “I was just a country girl, thrown into association with people of wealth.”  The Sequoyah Hotel was the leading hotel in town until the Will Rogers Hotel opened.  Mrs. Ashley recalls the excitement when the Will Rogers first opened, just as she remembers when “going to the picture show” was the “in” thing, and people parked their cars in front of the Sequoyah and walked to the show.

Many wealthy people came to Claremore for the radium baths, among them the Osage Indians, who had substantial wealth from their oil wells.  She remembers Chief Bacon Rind of the Osage tribe because he stopped at the hotel often.  She says he looked just like his portrait in the Gilcrease Museum.  Mrs. Ashley says she didn’t know Will Rogers well, but her husband did, because of his visits to the Sequoyah Hotel and then his stays at the Will Rogers Hotel.

When he left the Sequoyah, Elmer Ashley worked at the Will Rogers Hotel for a year, and then went to work for J. M. Davis at the Mason Hotel, continuing there until his death in September of 1956.  The Ashleys also lived in the Mason Hotel, and they continued to meet interesting people who stayed in Claremore.

Still an avid reader, Mrs. Ashley has enjoyed reading about other citizens she remembers from those years.  She remembers Grandmother Kates well.  “She was the most interesting person you would ever want to meet.  She was such fun,” she says.

Zelda Ashley continued to enjoy all the people she met, continued to teach school and completed her education.  She earned both her bachelors and masters at the University of Tulsa.  She received a school pin for being in the top 25 percent of her class, which was at that time the highest honor given students at TU.  While attending TU, she also sang as a soloist for the choir and in two presentations of “The Messiah.”

Teaching, however, continued to be her greatest love.  She spent 39 years in Rogers County…in Inola, Talala, Oowala and Tiawah, and in Claremore she taught in the high school, Hiawatha, Westside and Claremont buildings.  “I had so many lovely children,” she says.  She had the children of her earlier pupils and had one student whose mother and grandmother had also been in her school room. 

Mrs. Ashley says in some ways “I was different.”  As a school teacher she had “all these ideas in my head, and I actually did them.”  “I had very nice principals to work for,” she says.  The principals let her follow through with her different ideas, like taking the children on trips and teaching them to square dance, “which was unheard of” back them.

Mrs. Ashley loved her life as a school teacher, but she involved herself in other activities too.  As she explains it, “I taught so long, I felt if I just taught school and went home, I wouldn’t have any other life.”  So, she found time for her hobby of antiquing, and she gave book reviews.  She was the first person in Claremore qualified to be a flower show judge.  She was an active member of DAR and the Tuesday Study Club, and received a tribute for paying dues for 60 years.  She was also a longtime library patron, and the library had a copy of her original library card issued in the 1920s.

She continued teaching until 1966, the spring following her 65th birthday.  “I didn’t know I would live so many, many years after I retired,” she says.

Dealing with health problems in 1991, Mrs. Ashley decided to move into Wood Manor Nursing Home.  She donated her home and most of the contents, including her antique collection, to the Salvation Army.

Hanging on the wall of her room in the nursing home is a citation from Senator Stratton Taylor, commending her for accepting the responsibility of helping others by her generosity and kindness.  She did retain a few personal possessions, those of sentimental value.  Among them are her wedding rings and her school pin.

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