March is Women’s History Month and I will share information about women who have been from Greene County and made a difference.
Clara Allen Shields was born in Xenia, the daughter of Col. Coates and Mary Catherine Kinney. Her family had been in Greene County for several generations prior to her birth. She had the privilege of spending three years in Europe as a young woman. While there, she trained in vocal music as well as learning German, France, and Italian.
When the three years were up, she returned to Xenia to marry Dr. Lawrence Shields. Soon they moved to Mexico where he spent eight years in charge of the American Hospital at Mexico City. During those years, she continued to sing whenever possible. One of her great pleasures was when she took the lead role in an important production of “Hansel and Gretel.”
Even more special was the fact that through her excellent singing voice, she was invited to perform at a special concert presented for the wife of the president of Mexico.
The Mexican revolution caused them to leave that country and they went to Europe. Lawrence Shields served as a captain in the Medical Corps during World War I and was assigned for a period to the Military Hospital at Bordeaux.
During their time in Europe, Clara Shields continued to study voice. When they returned to Xenia, Shields continued his medical practice and they purchased a large home at the corner of East Second and Church Streets. That house is still standing,
Clara Shields quickly became involved with various community activities. She is perhaps best remembered as being president of the Xenia Woman’s Cub after her mother ceased to be president. She served as president of the club from 1927-1973.
Additionally she served as president of the Xenia Woman’s Music Club for many years. Both clubs met on a regular basis at her large home. She was also involved in other organizations to benefit the community.
The six singing Smith sisters were born in Washington Court House but lived in Jamestown the majority of their lives. They were professionally known as the Smith Sisters or Ariel Ladies Sextet.
They performed in all 48 states over a period of about 10 years. They had an agent in Cincinnati who arranged their performances which always began with a performance at the Jamestown Opera House.
The group was very popular during the 1890s with a total of 1,700 performances to their credit. They received the magnificent fee (at that time) of $100 per performance.
The local newspaper, the Jamestown Comet, noted the upcoming performance of May 30, 1891 at the Opera House, “throughout the land there is no family so generally talented as the Smith Sisters. See six sweet singing Smith Sisters Saturday night. The way seats have been selling at McGuire’s for the Smith Sisters is complimentary to the musical taste of our citizens.”
Following the performance the paper reported: “In the overcrowded condition of our copybook last week, the edition of the Smith Sisters’ concert was smothered out of sight until too late for publication. The entertainment was so pleasing to all that it deserve special notice. It is not a usual thing to have six girls in neither a family, nor is it usual, when such is the case, for all of them to be song birds. But this holds good with the Smith family. They all possess in a remarkable degree the gift of song. Miss Gertrude’s rendering of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and the ‘Echo Song’ was applauded in the most hearty manner. The sisters were frequently encored. The fact that almost everybody for miles around and many from a distance, were in attendance at their concert showed that their engagements at various prominent literary and religious assemblies whom she is looked upon as a brilliant rising star in the world of song.”
They were popular on the concert as well as the lyceum stage. Eventually five of the sisters married and their performances ceased. Eventually, they were all living in Columbus; the five who had been married were widows. The Columbus Dispatch contacted them in 1948 about appearing on “We the People,” a popular radio show at the time.
They recorded songs at WBNS radio station in Columbus. They stood in the same order they had many years ago to perform. Their singing was as excellent as it had been so many years ago. Grace McKinney, 76; Emma Mason, 82; Olive Smith, 74; Gertrude Saint, 78; Jeanette Walker, 85; and Marguerite Alkire, 79 impressed the engineers with their volume and harmony. Following the performance they were taken to lunch at the Southern Hotel, where they recalled having sung when the ballroom wad first opened in 1899.
The performance for “We the People” would take place in New York. None of them had been on a plane and were eager for the experience but due to weather, they traveled by train to New York City.
January 28, 1948 the Xenia Gazette reported: “Their broadcast Tuesday night was their first radio appearance and the first time they have sung together in public after retiring forty years ago.”
A cousin of the sisters, Delmer Hook was quoted in the Gazette, “I was always awed when I heard the sisters sing because their harmony tugs at my heart strings and their music over the air Tuesday night brought the same reaction.”
Joan Baxter is a Greene County historian and resident.