Benjamin Foraker Mounts was born April 28, 1888 in New Amsterdam, Harrison, Indiana. His father, Samuel, was 45 when he was born, and his mother, Florence, was 40. Ben was the ninth of ten children. Two older siblings died before he was born, so he only knew seven of his brothers and sisters.
Although Ben and all his siblings were born in Indiana, Ben would have had very few memories of living there. His father, Samuel, farmed and preached in a church in New Amsterdam, Indiana. But when Ben was young, Samuel became a traveling preacher for the Congregational church, and the family spent Ben's early childhood moving around. They moved to Illinois when he was four years old, and spent some time in Nebraska when he was five. When he was six years old, they settled in Billings, Missouri, and that's where they remained for the next six years.
In 1900, when Ben was twelve years old, the family made one final move to the Kansas City area. His father, Samuel, died of leukemia a year later, in April of 1901. Samuel had been sick Ben's entire life, due to Civil War injuries that never healed properly. His death may or may not have been related to the injuries - Ben's family and the United States government disagreed on that point. Ben spent the rest of his adolescence living with his mother and his siblings who were still at home. 1900 and 1901 would have been a rough two years for his family. His seventeen year old brother, Walter, died as well in November 1900.
Difficult beginnings aside, Ben enjoyed talking about his teenage years. His family eventually settled in the outskirts of Kansas City, in an area near Blue Springs and Grain Valley. He became close friends with another boy named Henry Pilant. Henry, he said, was closer to him than his brothers, and he remained a close friend into adulthood. Ben's son called him "Uncle Henry" and wrote, "I have sat (literally) for hours and listened to those two men relive their boyhoods and tell of the outrageous escapades that they participated in."
He took some time away from outrageous escapades for academics too, and completed high school.
Ben spent his entire life building and fixing things. His older brothers were all carpenters, so he most likely learned the trade from them at a young age. He was a perfectionist in all things, but especially in his work. His son wrote,
As a young man, he worked for the railroad, building and maintaining railroad cars. Once, while he was working underneath a boxcar, the car was bumped by an engine and pushed along the track, dragging Ben with it. He hurt his back, and he believed he was lucky to have survived at all.
Eventually he became a contractor, overseeing the construction of buildings in the Kansas City area. His son wrote in the mid-1980s that "many buildings that he constructed are still standing there -- and I will bet they are still as sound and structurally perfect as they were when he finished them."
He shared a story about how exactly Ben made sure those buildings were perfect.
It may have been during his work as a contractor that Ben developed a grudge against future president Harry Truman. In 1919, Truman opened a short lived men's clothing store in Kansas City. At one point, Ben did some work for Truman or possibly sold him some equipment. According to Ben's side of the story, Truman never paid him for it. Truman's store failed after just a few years, leaving Truman scrambling to pay back his debts, so Ben's version of events is actually plausible. And true story or not, Ben never approved of President Truman after that.
On November 6, 1915, Ben married Mabel Belle Bennett. Mabel was twenty-three, and he was twenty-seven. They had no reason to rush the wedding, but they chose an nontraditional wedding day. The two of them went alone to Olathe, Kansas and were married by a justice of the peace.
The courthouse wedding marked the beginning of a happy marriage. Their son wrote,
Twenty-five years after the wedding, Mabel kept a travel journal, and her words confirm her son's. She writes, casually, about making decisions together with her husband, who seemed to be genuinely her friend and partner.
|Ben and Mabel (on the left) with Mabel's family|
Ben and Mabel remained in Kansas City for about a decade after their marriage, and that kept them close their parents and siblings, both his and hers. His son wrote that although Ben enjoyed both families, he was probably closer with to his wife's family than his own, with the exception of his younger sister, Flossie. Of course, that doesn't mean he didn't stay in touch with his other siblings too. They had large family dinners with both sides of the family, and he had a regular pinochle night with Ben's brother Harry and his wife Emma.
Ben and Mabel's son, Ben Carol Mounts was born a little over three years after their wedding, on February 10, 1918. Years later, Benjamin Foraker told his son, Ben, about what a difficult birth it had been, and that "he thought that they were going to lose both her and [the baby]". Ben didn't know if that was the reason his parents never had any more children. Ben Carol would remain his parents' first and only child.
When his son was very small, Ben read his son bedtime stories most nights. The Kansas City Star printed Thornton Burgess's illustrated Bedtime Stories - adventures of a cast of talking animals - and his son sat in his lap to hear the stories.
He also tried to teach his son to stick up for himself. When Ben Carol lost a fight with neighborhood kids, Ben took him aside in the evening and gave him boxing lessons. His son wrote, "I don’t think it did much good -- I was always getting into fights, and getting whipped!"
In the fall of 1927, Ben took on the job of Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds at Missouri Valley College, and the family moved from Kansas City to the central Missouri town of Marshall. Ben had plenty of work to do at the college, overseeing the construction and maintenance of all the buildings on campus. But it took the family a few months to settle into their new home. 1927 turned out to be an exceptionally harsh winter - his son later said that "it was like moving to the North Pole" - and they missed their family back in Kansas City. They made the three hour drive back to Kansas City weekend after weekend.
Ben guided the construction of Missouri Valley College's Murrell Memorial Library and the Gregg-Mitchell Field in 1928, and Young Hall in 1929.
But he wasn't at Missouri Valley College for very long before he was out of a job - sort of. Due to the Great Depression, the college was forced to place some of the faculty on a leave of absence. He was still technically employed by them, but he had no work and no salary.
This wasn't as much of a problem for the Mounts family as you might think. Mabel had taken on a job with an abstracting company before the Depression hit, and she kept that job all through the Depression and into World War II. Ben, meanwhile, did the odd bit of construction work, and was also steadily employed by Rea's Garage. He developed a reputation for excellent work, and he brought extra business to the garage.
Ben had loved to work with cars ever since there were cars to work on. Sometime he chose to stay out in his garage, tinkering with his cars late into the night. He invented an early gas pump meter. To this day, some people in Marshall believe he invented the gas pump meter, the same one they use every day when they fill their cars. But he never patented his invention.
Thanks to Ben, the entire family had strong thoughts on the make and models of cars, and strong emotional attachment to their particular cars. In a travel journal, Mabel kept up a running commentary on the good and not-so-good cars that she and Ben encountered a trip. She affectionately referred to their own car as "Little Ponty". Little Ponty was a "he".
When the family took a road trip to Mabel's hometown in northeast Missouri, Ben felt it was important to first overhaul every piece of the engine, and repaint the body so it was smooth as glass. His son wrote, "When he finally finished with it, it was beautiful -- I’m sure that car didn’t look half that good (nor did it run as well) the day it came from the factory."
(He was not rewarded for his efforts on that particular journey. The family ended up stuck in a ditch in a rainstorm, and his beautiful car finally rolled into town covered in mud.)
As fastidious as Ben was about the appearance of his cars and his buildings, he cared nothing at all about his own appearance. He didn't really notice clothes. He once used Mabel's wedding dress as a garage rag. (It's not entirely clear how or why that happened, and the family stories don't tell what Mabel had to say about it!) When he went to meet his son's fiance for the first time, he didn't change out of his work clothes first, and she thought he was a tramp hanging around the train station. They got along well once she realized he was her future father-in-law.
Ben continued his work with Rea's Garage until shortly before World War II. Then the college was finally able to bring him back on as full-time staff. A few years after that, he was busier at the college than he'd ever been. The G.I. Bill brought in a huge influx of new students at the end of the war, and Ben supervised the construction of several new campus buildings, and the additions to several more.
During his last ten years at the college, from 1957 to 1967, he took on additional duties and became an instructor of mathematics and engineering at the college. He had never attended college himself, but he studied textbooks, and he spent his life experimenting and learning. His brought the same intensity to trigonometry and calculus that he brought to everything else.
His grandson Steve once asked what, exactly, made Ben so interested in numbers.
"Numbers," Ben answered, "are everything."
"You mean numbers are the key to understanding the universe?" Steve asked.
"No," Ben said. "Numbers are the universe."
Friends and neighbors described Ben as a genius. He probably would have described himself as a genius too. He wasn't exactly modest, and he was a colorful storyteller. His son wrote, "Daddy was... pretty good at embellishing his remembrances of that past and, as he grew older, I noticed that many of his stories changed and became more and more colorful."
He bragged that he "never tasted a drop of alcohol," and he claimed that "cigarettes were for sissies." But he did smoke a pipe. He smoked Prince Albert Tobacco, and there are many family photos of him with a pipe in hand or dangling from the corner of his mouth.
His grandchildren don't describe him as a the type of grandfather who liked to get down on the floor and play with the kids. But he liked people who liked his work, even if they were children. One women who grew up next door to him wrote,
Ben's work at the college and the garage helped him build connections all around Marshall. When his teenage son got into a particularly outlandish misadventure (Young Ben decided to try out something he read about in gangster stories. It didn't work out like he hoped.) people from all over town, including the president of the college and the mayor, spoke up for the family.
In 1955, Ben's good standing in town helped him again, when he was elected to the Marshall city council. The council nominated Ben, over his own objections, as mayor pro tempore, to act as the mayor of Marshall in the mayor's absence. Ben said he appreciate the honor, but it would be better if the position went to council member with a two-year appointment, rather than Ben's one year appointment. But the rest of the council overruled him, and Ben was appointed Marshall's mayor pro tempore for 1955.
Meanwhile, Ben and his family stayed busy with interests and adventures outside of Ben's professional life.
Ben loved all sports, especially baseball. He played semi-professional baseball for a while when he was young, though he said he wasn't particularly good. His son wrote,
|Ben (on the right) in uniform for a semi-professional baseball team|
Years later in Marshall, Rea's Garage organized a softball team called the Pontiacs, and Ben and his son both played for the team. His son said, "Daddy had 'lost his touch' since his semi-pro days, and I never was too good. But we had a lot of fun, and even won a few games!"
The Mounts family was one of the first on the block to own a radio, and it was probably so they could listen to sports.
His son wrote,
The family liked to travel, and they did it as economically as they could. They stayed in tourist camps where they rented inexpensive cabins with few amenities. Mabel would pack a box of food and supplies, and then she would make breakfast and dinner at the camps, rather than buying meals at restaurants on the road. Eventually, twenty-five years after their wedding, Mabel and Ben went on their much delayed "honeymoon", a tour of southern United States. The trip involved a few more restaurant meals than their early travels. But they still stayed mostly in tourist camps when they could. Mabel proclaimed the hotels too "snazzy."
The family also shared a love of pets. Their first pet, a little white dog named Shag, showed up one day in Ben and Mabel's yard. Their son encouraged the dog to stay. Ben encouraged the dog to go. He even drove the dog across town and dropped him off. But Shag kept coming back, so Shag became their dog. Ben built him a bed out of two car tires and filled it with with old blankets.
One day Shag disappeared, and this time he didn't come back. Ben drove around the city for days looking for him, but he never found him.
That was when Ben's sister's husband introduced Dusty to the family.
Dusty was a little black cat, and theoretically, he belonged to Ben's son. In reality, Dusty was beloved by everyone in the family, and by Ben in particular. When Dusty harassed a neighbor's cat, Ben defended him, saying that cats would be cats. But, his son wrote, "I can imagine what his reaction would have been if it had been her cat chasing Dusty up a tree!"
Dusty lived to be old and blind, and he'd search for Ben in the dark to sit on his lap for hours. When Dusty died, Ben gave him a funeral. He built a little coffin for him and fired a rifle over his grave.
Late in life, Ben and Mabel began attending the Gill Memorial Baptist Church in Marshall. A 1966 photo shows him standing, shovel in hand, at the groundbreaking ceremony for church's new education building.
Ben retired from Missouri Valley College in 1967, when he was 79 years old. He only had a few years after his retirement to spend with Mabel. She died in 1973. But Ben still had more than a decade of his life ahead of him.
He lived independently to the end. But in April of 1984, his son wrote, "Daddy wasn’t at all well when we returned [from our vacation] though (characteristically) he insisted that there was nothing wrong with him -- that he merely had a little "flare-up." However, just a few days after our return he called us about some physical problems, and the doctor had him admitted to Fitzgibbon Hospital."
His son wrote, "He was alert mentally until the hour of his death, and his sense of humor never failed him. He was a remarkable man, and probably no man in Marshall had more friends."
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