'Stagecoach Mary' broke barriers of race, gender


America's Old West was undoubtedly a Wild West before an ex-slave and onetime Toledoan named Mary Fields arrived in 1885 at a small railroad town in present-day Montana.

Yet she certainly made things more interesting.

Miss Fields, who came to be known as "Stagecoach Mary," stood tall and brawny by even frontier standards, weighing more than 200 pounds.

Though she preferred men's clothes to women's, beneath her work apron she at times packed a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver. She was the only woman the local mayor permitted to drink in the saloons, where she favored hard liquor, smoked black cigars, and didn't shy from arguments, fistfights, or at least one confirmed duel.

As an EBONY magazine article later described that duel (authored in 1959 by actor Gary Cooper): "No one remembers how it turned out, but Mary was still around when it was over."

But there is much more to the true legend of Mary Fields than collated anecdotes. Time and again, her rough-and-tumble antics were outshone by a heart of gold - in Montana and in Toledo.

For years, Miss Fields served as faithful and irreplaceable help for the sisters of the Ursuline Convent, both in Toledo and at their western mission.

In Montana, she became only the second woman of any race to have a U.S. postal route, delivering mail by stagecoach from the town of Cascade to the surrounding countryside.

Carrier service could be a dangerous profession in those days. Though out of fear or respect, Indians knew not to mess with Miss Fields' stagecoach. She was likely the first black person - man or woman - they had seen.

According to The Adventures of the Negro Cowboys, Miss Fields was "perhaps the most remarkable" of the black women in western towns. However, this path to fame had a crucial stop in Toledo.

Mary Fields was born into slavery in Tennessee in either 1832 or 1833 (she never knew the exact date and all her life celebrated two birthdays a year).

Sister Kathleen Padden, archivist for Toledo's Ursuline Convent, said research indicates that Miss Fields, who never married, was owned by the Warner family that lived in Arkansas.

She met Sara Therese Dunne after one of the Warner family's daughters married a Dunne, according to Sister Kathleen. She followed Sara Theresa Dunne to Toledo, where the sister - who became Mother Amadeus - asked her to work for the convent and the girls' school the nuns operated.

The Ursuline grounds were at what is now Cherry and Erie streets near downtown.

Miss Fields arrived by train in 1878. As Mother Amadeus helped her old friend get settled in her new quarters, she asked if there was anything she needed.

According to the book Working for the Ursulines, Miss Fields answered, "Yes, a good cigar and a drink."

She quickly made herself indispensable.

The sisters enjoyed her company and were surprised by how much work she could do: washing laundry, buying supplies, managing the kitchen, and growing and maintaining the garden and grounds were among her tasks.

A former Ursuline archivist, Sister Mary Grace Connelly, once told The Blade stories she personally heard about the ex-slave's days in Toledo.

"They said she had such a temper, the girls were afraid to come to school," Sister Grace, since deceased, recalled in a 1981 interview. "God help anyone who walked on the lawn after Mary had cut it."

Miss Fields was said to enjoy politics of all kinds and could be spotted on Election Day smoking a black cigar while hitching rides around town with any horse driver who would oblige.

When Mother Amadeus took ill with pneumonia while serving in the western mission, Miss Fields journeyed west to look after her. She nursed the sister back to health and proceeded to help build the sisters' new stone convent - hauling the materials by herself from town by horse and wagon.

Mr. Cooper's EBONY story described how Miss Fields faced all varieties of weather and danger as she did the mission's freighting. Once, when a pack of wolves spooked her horses and upset their load, Miss Fields stood sentinel through the night to guard the supplies that her sisters needed to survive.

On another occasion when a blizzard blocked her team's path, Miss Fields managed to stay alive by pacing back and forth all night in the subzero temperatures, according to the story of Mr. Cooper, who as a young boy met Miss Fields and was captivated.

Though Miss Fields was adored by the Ursuline sisters, various complaints about her brassy ways compelled the territory's bishop to order the sisters to "send that black woman away."

The nuns had little choice but to obey, said Sister Kathleen, the Ursuline archivist.

"She got into trouble with the bishop, not with the nuns," Sister Kathleen said.

"The nuns loved her. But the bishop didn't think she was a good example."

Mother Amadeus twice helped set up Miss Fields in the restaurant business. However, her altruistic impulses precluded both projects from being financial successes.

Perhaps it worked out for the best.

After the restaurants, she ventured into her famous stagecoach mail route, which she kept for about eight years.

Miss Fields was close to 70 when she stopped the mail route and started a laundry business in town. When the business burned in a 1912 fire, townspeople volunteered the time, labor, and materials to rebuild her home.

Much loved by the citizenry, Miss Fields was invited to take her meals for free at the local hotel and went on to become the mascot in her old age of Cascade's baseball team.

From her own garden she made buttonhole bouquets for each player on the team and fashioned full bouquets for those who hit home runs.

Miss Fields worked as a baby-sitter in her final years.

According to EBONY, she charged $1.50 a day and spent nearly all of the money buying candy for town children. She died in 1914 at the age of either 81 or 82.

Sister Kathleen said that most of the inquiries she fields about Miss Fields happen around Black History Month and are from national groups or researchers. Despite her captivating life story, Mary Fields is not remembered as a local figure in Toledo.

"I presume that some of our sisters didn't know about Mary until fairly recently, so they didn't teach her story in their elementary classes," said Sister Kathleen, archivist since 2001.

"I wasn't that familiar with her story until I came to the archives - then I was absolutely fascinated by her."

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