top of page

Miss Sadie’s call: To care for others

St. Luke’s Hospital, St. Louis, Mo., nursing class graduating in November 1907. CONTRIBUTED CLIFTON WITHERS JR.


For the Courier-Post

There’s a family story that still lingers long after Sarah Agnes Wither’s death, suggesting that she never married because her brothers ran off all of her suitors.

True or not, Miss Sadie – as she preferred to be called – lived a hale and hearty lifetime with roots firmly planted at Withers Mill, a small hamlet founded by her father and grandfather in Miller Township, Marion County, Missouri.

Miss Sadie’s story is as rich and fertile as the farmland her ancestors began cultivating long before her birth. Born in 1875 to Samuel and Mary Withers, she was granddaughter to James M. Withers, and great granddaughter of Missouri pioneer James Withers.

John Withers, the first of his family line to move to Missouri, was born in 1769. By the time of his death in 1838, he had amassed farm acreage in both Kentucky and Missouri, which he bequeathed to his children in parcels. Included in these land gifts was the acreage in Marion County where Withers Mill was settled.

Upon that land John R. Withers, born in 1812, and his son, Samuel Withers, born in 1840, built a mill which served the needs of the community for a number of years to come. Nearby a railroad station was constructed, and the community developed around the mill and rail access.

Samuel had two marriages. His first wife was Sarah Margaret Bradley on Jan 13,1862. Corrie Withers was their first child. Sarah died a few days after the birth of their 2nd child. The child died 5 months later.

Samuel's second marriage was to Miss Mary (Mollie) James. The first children were twins who died at childbirth. Samuel died at age 5 and Charles at age 3, both from diphtheria caused by contaminated cistern water. Sadie was 10 years old when her brother Samuel died and 15 years old when Charles died. Their pictures were hung on the parlor wall of the brick house. “Aunt Sadie would lament poor Sam, poor Charlie,” Clifton Withers said.

Sadie Withers and her siblings attended Providence School, in a building first opened for classes in 1877. The new building had replaced a log cabin, which had served the district since 1848. The school – like most rural educational facilities – was the center of the community. It was built from stone culled from the James E. King farm, the Smarr farm, the Slifer place and Lefever’s Hill. The lime used in the building was from the kiln at White Bear. (Source: “Withers Mill,” by J. Hurley and Roberta Roland Hagood.)

Miss Sadie enjoyed the out of doors, and a mention in the May 6, 1897 edition of the Palmyra Spectator, when she was 22 years old, noted she could often be seen doing something outdoors, including cleaning the lawn or taking care of her buggy and poultry.

Nursing career

Seven years later Miss Sadie took an enormous step forward in her personal growth by enrolling in the St. Luke’s Hospital nursing school in 1904. This hospital was just the fourth in the United States to open its own school for nurses. Sadie graduated on Nov. 23, 1907, and joined her colleagues, both past and present, in the pursuit of private duty nursing jobs.

Hospital jobs were generally filled by student nurses, who worked at the hospital in conjunction with their training. Nurses and nursing associations established “nursing pools” from which individuals who needed – and could afford – nursing care could select a home-care nurse. For more than 20 years, Miss Sadie worked for people who sought out her services, thus going to their homes to give extended care.

A partial listing of her patients was culled from newspaper mentions during the years from 1911-1930, via

Mrs. T.A. Rosell, wife of Dr. Roselle who practiced first in Palmyra and later in Hannibal, was experiencing prolonged fever in August 1911, when Miss Sadie was called to her bedside to administer care.

Mrs. Simon Hirner, wife of a Palmyra hardware store owner, summoned Miss Sadie to administer care to her in January 1912.

Miss Naomi Foristell, a teacher for the St. Louis County School district for 16 years, called upon Miss Sadie to offer care in August 1930. Miss Foristell was the daughter of Pierre Foristell, pioneer stock raiser and farmer, in whose honor the town of Foristell – in Lincoln County – was named. Miss Foristell was a graduate of Lindenwood College. She died in September 1935.

Family stories indicate that Miss Sadie also worked as a private duty nurse for the family of Oscar Johnson, who, at the time of his death in 1916, was president of the International Shoe Company. She was offered an opportunity to remain with the family after Mr. Johnson’s death, but declined the offer.

Family stories also tell that Miss Sadie traveled to Huron, S.D., in August 1918, to care for her brother, William J. Withers, a locomotive engineer. The Chicago and Northwestern passenger train he was in charge of, while traveling at a slow speed, hit a steer on the tracks. A newspaper account of the event said that the engine hit the steer and ran over it, hurling the engine into a ditch. Withers experienced a broken wrist, and possibly scald wounds from the steam engine.

She cared for both of her parents during their final illnesses, and ultimately remained at the family home in Withers Mill until her own death, which occurred in 1953.

She also was called upon to nurse her brother, J.H. Withers of Casper, Wyo., during the summer of 1947, prior to his death.

Family memories

Clifton Withers of Ballwin, Mo., remembers his aunt, Sadie Withers. “She hated the name Mary Agnes,” he said. She was always Aunt Sadie to her nieces and nephews.

Clifton’s father – Miss Sadie’s brother – was a telegraph operator at the Burlington depot at Withers Mill until Clifton was ready to start school.

“I was 5 years old and had just started school in 1935 when the railroad station in Withers Mill was closed and we moved to Moscow Mills,” where Mr. Withers took a similar job with the railroad. “After we moved we drove back to Withers Mill every other Sunday to visit. In the summer my older brother John stayed two weeks with Aunt Sadie and I stayed one week. In the earlier years she had a Model A Ford.”

Clifton has vivid memories of riding in that Model A with Aunt Sadie to Bear Creek Cemetery, where she pointed out unmarked family graves.

“She was remorseful that the graves were not marked but didn't have enough money to do anything about it,” Clifton said. “There were some temporary markers the funeral homes use to mark graves leaning on the church wall. She walked over and got one of the markers and put it in the ground at her grandparents' grave. As I remember it was close to the church.”

The graves were those of:

John Withers (1769-1838)

Mary (Polly) Emerson Withers (1776-1870)

John R. Withers (1811-1890)

Sarah Smarr Withers (1819-1888)

William Withers (1836-1844)

Sarah Margaret Bradley (1841-1868)

William Harvey Withers (1868-1869)

Clifton, based upon his memories of that cemetery visit and with the cooperation of Tim Hayden, long-time member of the cemetery board, anticipates placing a memorial marker at the cemetery honoring his ancestors.

Providence Cemetery

Miss Sadie Withers is buried at Providence Cemetery in Marion County, to the west of Hannibal. Also at this cemetery are a number of Withers family members, including her parents, Samuel and Mary Withers, their neighbors and friends.

Aunt Sadie and her horse are pictured in front of the Withers’ house. The woman to the right in the photo is likely Sadie’s mother, Mary Withers. CONTRIBUTED CLIFTON WITHERS

Front row, from left, Rob, Sadie and Will Withers. Back row, Clifton and Jim Withers. CONTRIBUTED CLIFTON WITHERS JR.

Providence School, May 20, 1889. Rob, Sadie, Will and Jim Withers are among the students in this photo. CONTRIBUTED CLIFTON WITHERS JR.

Tombstone cutlineSarah Agnes Withers, known by friends and family as Miss Sadie, is buried at Providence Cemetery in rural Marion County. For more than 20 years she was a private duty nurse, caring for patients as well as family members. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

The John R. Withers house, built in 1854, still stands, on the north side of the county road leading into Withers Mill. Samuel Withers moved his family into this house after his father’s death in 1890. Miss Sadie Withers was 16 years old at the time. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

 Recent Posts 
bottom of page