[The man and women on the right are Zella Bates and John King, posing with fellow Otterbein students, about 1893.]
Zella Bates was a country girl from Wood County. She grew up on a farm in the wilds of eastern Wood County, between Risingsun and Wayne, which she knew by its original name of Freeport. Her family, including her mother, father, and brother Sardis, were devout members of the United Brethren Church, which operated a small college in Westerville, near Columbus.
To this college, then and now called Otterbein University, Zella went in the fall of 1892 as a freshman. In addition to studying Latin, German, and geometry, she met a fellow student named John R. King. A native of Pennsylvania, King was already a licensed minister when he met Miss Bates. Along about October, Mr. King proposed after a courtship mainly involving walks, reading to each other, and attending the newfangled football games. Miss Bates accepted, and they married the following June.
In her diary, she recounts such country events as quilting bees, taffy pulls, harvests, and a couple of Christmases. One was a down home, Wood County Christmas; uneventful, quiet, and full of visits and friends.
16th Sat. Sardy & I leave W. on the morning train We go to Columbus, then take the H. V. [Hocking Valley rail]road at Fostoria I take the O.C. [Ohio Central] for our folks are not expecting us in Bradner papa meets me then goes for Sardy & the trunks. We are glad to be home again.
17. Sunday. papa & I walk to S. school & preaching at the M.E. [Methodist Episcopal church]
22nd Friday. Mama, Sardy, & I go to Fostoria to-day to do some shopping
23rd Saturday. The M. E’s have a Christmas tree. The weather is quite warm for this time of year.
24th Attend Sunday school & & preaching at the M.E.
25th Christmas Day Monday We are all at home to day suppose we will be separated [sic] by a great distance next Christmas. This is a warm & pleasant day.
26th …. Get a letter and Christmas present from John to-day. He is coming Sat.
29th …. Pa & Sardy go to a lecture in Freeport in the evening.
30th This morning John comes on the 8.30 train Sardy meets him. We spend a pleasant day.
31st Papa, Estelle, John & I go to Sunday. school. … dinner in the evening Sardy takes John & I to Bradner to take the evening train for Columbus. We call on Effie & Fred until train time and almost miss the train. We get in Columbus at 10.30 o’clock…
But what a difference a year makes. The newly married Mr. & Mrs. King, who had several friends in the active United Brethren foreign missions, decided to give up Wood County for the wilds of West Africa. Zella hints at this in her entry for December 25. In November of 1894 they sailed for Europe on the SS Britannic, which took them to Europe. A smaller steamboat ushered them into what must have been a nearly unimaginable world of Africa. They arrived in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, just in time to experience Christmas, West African style.
Monday, December 24 . . . Mr. King is bitten by a Centipede in the evening. I am very much frightened but they tell us it is not dangerous. Early this evening we hear firecrackers and see torpedoes flying and are told that is to celebrate… this is Christmas time. A number of children and young people come up to our window with a jumping Jack and sing and carry on. They are serenading I suppose.
Tue 25th Christmas Day. We sleep until late this morning as we were tired and up late. We have cocoa rather late, have a number of callers both yesterday and to-day…. This is a strange Christmas. The day is warm and it seems like a fourth of July. In the afternoon a crowd …. are going around pounding on drums and singing & dancing, They come in front of our window and make a noise for a while. … it seems dreadful to see them carrying on so…. We spend a very pleasant day…..We enjoy the fruits ever so much. We have had breadfruit, oranges, bananas….all of which I like I also like cocoa which takes the place of potato. I make a silk tie for John to-day.
The Kings lived and worked in Africa for fifteen years, before returning to Ohio. John King died in 1938, Zella in 1954. They were benefactors to Otterbein, while retaining income from Wood County farmland they inherited. Their lives were full of extraordinary contrasts, and among their memories were surely those remarkably different Christmases of 1893 and 1894.
[Zella Bates King’s two volume diary is in the Otterbein University Archives. Thanks to University Archivist Stephen Grinch for providing access. I have modernized spelling and punctuation and removed some redundancies.]