Reading Hair

Hair Wreath Hair Wreath Hair Wreath

Xavier Zahnley wanted more than the bleak hills of the Allemande had to offer him. In the early nineteenth century, the young man from Baden, Germany boarded a ship headed to America and its continuously expanding manifest destiny. Sometime between 1820 and 1835, Xavier crossed the hearth of North America and began a life with Harriet Bowerize in the evergreen farmlands of Morris County, Ohio. The young couple gave life to a group of children whose progeny would spread forth from their small Ohio farmland to all corners of the United States. The couple and their children adopted the various customs and dreams of their respective generations, moving from farmlands to cities, cleansing their spirits in churches, serving up their bodies for American militias, and most fascinating of all, picking up a now-extinct art of hair jewelry. At the center of my analysis stands a stunningly-constructed hearth ornament, the Zahnley family’s hair wreath.

The name 'Zahnle' is interesting, as it points to a distinct geographic family origin. “Zahn” a name typical for people living in the western French-German borderland, means “tooth” in German. The “le” ending of the name in German indicates an endearing affinity and translates into “little tooth.” The addition of the “y” to the name was likely a clerical error or an Ellis Island invention in an attempt to make the strange sounding Teutonic name sound more English. The Zahnleys in the United States tended to live in communities with high concentrations of European immigrants, and most of them settled in Kansas.

The story of our Zahnley family begins with Xavier. Xavier Zahnley was born in 1809 in Baden, Germany, and later married Harriet Bowerize. He is the forefather of James Zahnley, the true patriarch of the Manhattan Zahnley clan. James was married to Rebecca Curry in 1867 in Sullivan County, Ohio, and the couple soon got to making the American dream. They were a hardworking farming people who reaped the benefits of arriving in the United States at a time of economic prosperity for the northern territories. All in all, they raised seven children whose progeny would spread across the United States. Allice Zahnley was born in 1869, Harriet in 1871, Frankland in 1873, William Washington in 1876, Arthur Lyman in 1877, James Walter in 1884 and Harry Christopher in 1890 (“1920 United States Federal Census”). The family lived in Morris County, Kansas from 1880 to 1920, and the children ventured off as they came of age.

The 1940 United States Census indicates that James died in 1935. Rebecca lived as a widow in Alta Vista, Kansas, until her death in 1945 at the age of ninety-seven. That is, sometime around 1880 the Zahnley family relocated from Ohio to Kansas, likely following the pattern of wheat farming and harvesting. James was an original trustee of the Morris Presbyterian Church in Morris County, built in 1885. It is likely that the life of James and Rebecca would not have been one of extreme comfort. However, as evidenced by James' position as a church trustee, the family was well respected and clearly had enough wealth to have a hand in decision making in the county. In The Farmers Age: Agriculture, 1815-1860, Paul Gates emphasizes that the United States' number one crop was wheat during that period, pointing to Ohio as the epicenter of wheat production. That is probably why James, as a wheat farmer, was relatively successful. James owned land, regularly went to church, and lived a prosperous and successful midwestern life.

The Zahnleys’ second daughter, Harriet, married George Jenner in 1895 at the age of twenty-four. The couple moved to Wichita, Kansas, and had six children: John, Anna, Ruby, Roscoe Frederick, Eva Marie, and George Raymond. Harriet passed away in 1926, only forty-five years old. While Wichita today is one of the largest cities in the Midwest, at the time that Harriet and George lived there it would have been something different entirely. We have few details on George's profession. It, however, is not unreasonable to assume that he came from a wealthier farming background as well. As the twentieth century churned along, the wheat agricultural center transitioned to Kansas, which was dubbed “The Breadbasket Of America.” This might have motivated the Zahnley family to move from Ohio to Kansas.

Frankland, the oldest Zahnley son, married a fascinating woman by the name of Sarah Lowe. We can trace her linage back to the year 1328 with the marriage of a William Taylor to a Mrs. William Taylor. The Lowes family was clearly wealthy over many generations, which makes Frankland and Sarah's marriage even more fascinating. All of the Zahnley children married into prosperous middle class families, which is why the family had the means to buy houses whenever they moved. This explains why Xavier Zahnley's great-grandson, James C Zahnley, donated a number of upper-middle class objects to the Riley County Historical Society, including an ivory photo album and our ornate hair wreath. As we journey through the histories of the Zahnley family, it is fascinating to retrace how an immigrant family lived the American Dream.

Our primary focus, however, is on James and Rebecca's son, James Walter. His wife Hazel was probably the maker of the complex hair wreath, and James’ roots grow the deepest in the amber plains of Kansas. James lived from 1884 to 1974, far exceeding standard life expectancy of the time. When James was born in Ohio in 1884, the eight-hour workday was established as a law for the very first time. When James died at the age of ninety in 1974, the world population had grown to almost four billion people. James Walter became a Professor of Agronomy at Kansas State University, following a long family farming tradition. While his father and siblings chose a more traditional lifestyle, James developed into a respected academic with published research papers in major journals. He probably chose agronomy due to his firsthand experience working the fields with James Senior and his brothers, inspired to ease the trials of farmers across the world.

Reading Hair