Inside the Archives: Celebrating Women’s History Month
“Why do we live and have our being? What is our purpose in life? Is it merely to exist and fill a small gap in the human family?”
Such existential quandaries were posed not only by philosophers and theologians, but also by Mrs. Mary Poer Oslin in a journal entry titled, “Philosophy of life.”
Born in 1875 in West Point, Georgia, Mary was the youngest and only surviving daughter of George and Laura Poer. George Poer’s success as a land owner and stock grower afforded a comfortable living. Mr. Poer purchased a stately home in 1889 which the family named “Happy Heights.” He provided his children who lived to adulthood with strong educations. Mary attended the Georgia Normal and Industrial College (now Georgia College and State University) in Milledgeville, and her brothers, John and Norman, became doctors.
In October 1897, an ambitious young courier working for the Southern Express Company visited relatives in West Point, Georgia. That may not have been the first time Reuben Jefferson Oslin met Mary Poer, but shortly thereafter the two began corresponding. His work with the railroad and express company became perilous during a yellow fever outbreak in 1897.
Writing to his sweetheart, Oslin described the conditions he faced: “I left Montgomery this morning at 9 a.m. That city presents a sad appearance – almost deserted! So many citizens left upon the first authentic information of yellow fever in the city.”
Oslin survived the epidemic and studied dentistry. Mary Poer and Reuben Oslin wed on November 8, 1898. Building his dental practice, Dr. Oslin commuted to Montgomery during the week. A train wreck at Osanippa Creek on the morning of March 26, 1900 killed Reuben Oslin.
The young widow and her infant son remained in West Point with her parents. A devout Methodist, Mary formed a Sunday School department for children under eight at First Methodist Church in West Point. Active in the social and service clubs of West Point, Mrs. Oslin was a longtime member of the West Point Woman’s Club as well as the Women’s Missionary Society and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
The swell of women’s clubs, particularly the WCTU, during the late 1800s and early 1900s gathered women outside of the home to work towards a common goal. Women became spearheads for reform movements, first against alcohol, and later for women’s suffrage.
With a young son to raise, however, Mrs. Oslin devoted her attention to him. In the early 1900s, she purchased a Model T Ford so the family could enjoy daytrips to Warm Springs. One summer, she and her son George traveled to Washington D.C. Georgia Senator Hoke Smith arranged a trip to the White House and a visit with President Taft.
A few years later, in 1915, Mrs. Oslin and George spent three months out West traveling by rail to the International Exposition in San Francisco. On the way, they spent a week in Salt Lake City where they lodged with a daughter of one of Brigham Young’s wives.
With the United States entering the international melee of World War I in 1917, Mrs. Oslin answered the call to serve. As young and able-bodied men prepared to fight, the government, like many businesses, looked to women to assume jobs previously done by men.
On September 3, 1918, Mrs. Oslin reported for duty. Working as a clerk for the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Supplies and Accounts, she lived in Washington D.C. for two years.
After 1920, Mrs. Oslin returned to West Point, but her travels were far from over. She began her own travel company. Oslin Vacation Tours offered reasonable rates to distant destinations, such as New York, Boston, California and Alaska. By the accounts of her sojourners, the trips lived up to their motto: “See the wonders of America in the most delightful way.”
In addition to her traveling agency, Mrs. Oslin served as the first librarian at Hawkes Library. The West Point Woman’s Club adopted the library of the Young Men’s Library Association after it dissolved, and its members secured the support of an Atlanta optometrist and philanthropist, Albert Hawkes, in building a library.
On September 29, 1922, Hawkes Children’s Library opened to the public. For nearly twenty years, Mrs. Oslin, who had personally ventured far beyond West Point, helped children discover exotic places, real and imagined, through books.
Before her death in 1959, Mrs. Oslin reflected on her life, and on life in general. In her journal, she settled on an answer to one of existence’s weightiest problems. The aim of life is simply “to live this life of helping others.”
She wrote from experience.
To learn more about Mary Poer Oslin, please visit Cobb Memorial Archives and see our display, “Defenders of Democracy: The Valley in World War I.” To contact the Archives, please call (334) 768-2050 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.