Hinkletown Legend Bertha Ballard

Every town, especially a ghost town, has its legendary characters, those who have left their imprints forever by acting a bit out of the ordinary. Hinkletown has its share of legends and stories, from Jesse James on the far end, to Bertha Ballard, a kind, pioneer spirit who endeared herself to everyone she met. Her behavior and activities were deemed a bit eccentric, and resulted from a long life of adversities and financial hard times. First, some old photographs and history:

Bertha Stella Riffel was born on October 5, 1880, the oldest daughter of Thomas Joseph and Melvina Riffel. This photograph of Bertha was taken about 1898 at the age of 18. In 1903 Bertha married John Newton Ballard Jr. (Photo courtesy of Burrell Brenneman)

John Newton Ballard Jr., also about1898

John and Bertha left Iowa soon after they were married and lived first in Afton, Oklahoma, where her first two girls were born. Her first son was born in a covered wagon in New Mexico. They then returned from New Mexico to Hinkletown, Iowa, again in a covered wagon. In all, they had eleven children.

The family of John and Bertha Ballard at Hinkletown (Photo courtesy of Burrell Brenneman)

John Ballard, in an unfortunate incident, took his own life in 1924, leaving Bertha to raise 11 children at the age of 43, the youngest child less than a year old at the time. It was from this time forward that the stories of this amazing woman began to surface.

Here's a few of the legends of Bertha Ballard, contributed by those who lived here long ago, or their descendents:

" She did a lot of fishing and seldom wore shoes back to the river.  Once while headed toward the river with her fishing gear, she came upon a fox which made a run at her and she hit it with a bucket she was carrying and killed it.  Another time, a large white crane got ahold of one of her lines and swallowed the hook.  As she tried to get the hook loose from the crane, it whacked her in the head with it's long sharp beak.  Well, ya don't whack someone in the head when they're trying to do something nice for ya, so she wrung it's neck.  Another time, she caught a HUGE cat fish and it broke the line, so she just waded into the river and caught it bare handed.  It was the Big ONE that didn't get away.  And then another time, she took Karen and I with her to catch frogs.  We went to a pond out north of the school house.  We used a bare hook on a long pole that we would dangle under the frogs lower lip, then give it a quick yank and snag it.  We brought several frogs home with us that day, but after all that, Karen and I wouldn't eat frog legs.  We had taken cord and made a 'leash' and walked a couple of the larger ones home.  Guess we got a little too attached to the little critters.  Mrs. Ballard had a large garden to the west of her house and raised watermelons, among lots of other things.  One night we hear a gun shot, only to find out the next day, that someone had been into her melon patch and she had to get the shot gun out and scare them off.  She fired above their heads, she had no intention of hurting anyone. Ya gotta wonder if the person in the patch, remembers that night???  She knew a lot of 'Old Indian Remedies', too.  Once I fell, while roller-skating, and skinned my face up pretty bad.  She went to the ditch and got a cat tail and stripped all the brown 'fur' off the end.  She then heated the fur in 'real' butter and made a salve out of it.  It healed it up in no time. That's what I can remember for now."  Maggie Christy

"Did you ever hear the story of Bertha Ballard  marrying Verne Singleton? She moved in with him, bringing her three cows with her, across the Green Valley Bridge, then a right, down in there someplace. After just a few days Verne announced that he was going to sell one of her cows. She then got her three cows and drove them up the road with a switch, back to where she had been living before, up where Edwin McCune later lived. (The next place up the road from past the Dixon Brothers.)  Joe Gray told this story many times." Dennis Thurman

"I can remember when her father would come for a visit. She had to hide the vanilla extract or he would drink it for the alcohol content. Now I believe the Covered Wagon trip was made when she was married. In the summer of 1954 a lot of towns were having Centennial Celebrations. Radio Station WMT had some program on at noon every day, where they would talk to people on the street. One week they had a contest to find the person who had made the longest trip in a covered wagon.  On one day Ralph Ballard went up there and won the daily prize when he claimed that he was born in a Covered Wagon in Tucumcari, NM and then traveled back to Iowa by covered wagon. The next day Bertha Ballard was on the broadcast. She won the daily prize and the weekly prize with her claim that she had taken a Covered Wagon trip from Iowa to Tucumcari, NM and back. And that her son Ralph had been born on the trip. I think the cow was a little Jersey and was provided by our father. Kind of a perk. I remember that she would take the cow up and down the road where she would tie it to the fence and let it eat the grass. She also had a yellow cat which would follow the cow and stay near while she grazed. Our father let her live there rent free in order to have someone to occupy the place. A kind of a mutual benefit arrangement. If some of the livestock got through the fence she would get them back in. But if it was a large scale situation she would call on the phone and let us know. One time we came out there on a Saturday morning to do the chores. She came out of the house and informed our Father that she had been visited by Fulton Donahue. He wanted to know if she would be interested in moving to his place down the road which was unoccupied. He didn't know how much rent she was being charged, but whatever the amount, he would charge her less!! " Dennis Thurman

"Bertha Riffel was born in 1880.  She married John Newton Ballard.  He died in 1924 and she was left with 11 children to raise at age 43.  She lived to age 90, passing away in 1970, so she was a widow for 46 years.  Bertha Ballard's daughter is quoted as saying,  "Mother could do anything and there will never be another like her.  She could build a barn, husk corn, shoot a fox, catch fish.  She raised 11 children alone.  God bless her!"  Bertha left Iowa after she married and went to Afton, Oklahoma, where her first two girls were born.  Her first son was born in a covered wagon in New Mexico.  The family returned to Iowa where her next eight children were born.  Her children were:  Eunice, Ina, Ralph, Floyd, Iva, Mae, Ruth and Rena (twins), Elsie, Opal and Dorothy.  From the obituary of daughter Ida Ewing, who died at age 23, "Ida was the fifth child of a family of 11 children.  When she was a small child, the family moved to the community known as Hinkletown.  It was at this place where she lost her father Feb 13, 1924.  Thus the hardships of life fell heavy on her young and always frail body.  She together with the other children of the family, showed a fine spirit of cooperation at the death of their father.  There was much to do and each did his or her part in turn as the mother and family endeavored to face adjustments when such an emergency occurs."  Eight months later, her 17-year-old sister Elsie Elizabeth Ballard, became ill and passed away in 1937.  Dorothy, the youngest child in the family, died in 1940, at age almost 17."

Photo courtesy of Kay Miller

Photo courtesy of Phyllis Thurman Ries

Bertha Ballard died on February 19, 1970, after a short illness. Her obituary states, "With her strong pioneer spirit she met the challenge of raising a large family, and yet took the time to help others who called upon her in time of need."

Other Early Hinkletown Families

Alan Kline's Old Photographs of North English Iowa

Burrell's Old Photographs of North English Iowa

Go to Hinkletown "Central"