Three Mothers: Part I – Opal Gay Coumerilh (1903-1978)

One winter evening when I was about eleven years old, we sat down with Grandma in the living room by the faint light of the fireplace and the Christmas tree. I asked her about her childhood and about her ancestors – people I had never met.

“What can you tell me about Opal Gay Coumerilh?”

Grandma sat quietly for a moment. Even with just the faint light from the fire, I could see the sadness in her face.

“When I was about eight years old, my mother left home. Because of that, I do not have many memories of her.”

Opal Gay Coumerilh as a small child.

Opal Gay Coumerilh was born 29 July 1903 in De Beque, Colorado the daughter of John Henry Coumerilh and Lois Hunt Coumerilh.[1] By 1905, the family had settled in Tilden, Idaho several miles southwest of Blackfoot where John’s father, Joseph Coumerilh, resided.[2]

Growing up, Opal frequently visited her grandparents in Blackfoot, and even lived with them for a time when she was attending the Blackfoot Central School.[3] She excelled in school and made the honor roll several times.[4] In April 1916, she made it into the final rounds of the Blackfoot Public School spelling contest.[5] Perhaps Opal would have been proud to know that her daughter, my grandmother, also excelled in her schooling, frequently being rated at the top of her class – an achievement they shared in common.  

However, just a few months after the spelling bee, Opal’s world was upended when her mother died on 18 November 1916 of Bright’s Disease.[6] Just six months later, Opal’s father secretly married Vivian Sullivan in Davis County, Utah.[7] Even when John and Vivian began announcing their marriage to friends in December 1917, they reported that they were married in early July.[8] Perhaps, they did so to avoid the stigma of John’s rapid remarriage.  

It was around this time when Opal was struggling with the loss of her mother, was taking on responsibilities for her younger siblings, and was perhaps struggling with the adjustments of living with a new stepmother that she first met Ira Stoddard. Opal had accompanied her father to a business meeting near the local reservation where John and Ira discussed their cattle.[9] Little is known about their courtship, perhaps it was not often discussed after Opal left. In any case, Opal married Ira on 11 May 1920.

Ira Stoddard and Opal Coumerilh at the time of their marriage in 1920

On the day of their wedding, Opal rode the train south from Blackfoot and Ira rode the train north. They were to meet in Pocatello. On the train-ride Ira saw Mr. Coumerilh. Under normal circumstances, they might have talked, but in this instance, Ira carefully avoided his soon-to-be father-in-law. After all, Mr. Coumerilh was unaware of Ira’s planned marriage to Opal.[10] He was twenty-eight years old. Though Opal claimed she was eighteen, she was actually sixteen.[11]  

Perhaps Opal viewed marriage to an older, handsome and prominent rancher as a potential escape from the recent challenges of her own life, but her new life was by no means simpler. Any responsibility or challenges she thought she was escaping were probably not as great as the ones she would soon face. Within a decade, Opal was the mother of six children and was responsible to oversee the day-to-day operations of a large ranch. During the summer, her husband was often away herding cattle on the range, and she was left alone with her children and the ranch hands. In contrast to her father’s ranch which was close enough to Blackfoot for day trips, the ranch in Chesterfield was quite remote and visiting her family would have been a multi-day commitment.

Grandma’s oldest sister, Barbara, recalled: “Our mother was really a lot of fun. She played games with us. During the summer, the hired help would be there, A lot of them were young kids and we’d all be out playing run sheepy run and hide and seek. We just had a lot of fun. She was fun-loving and I guess that may have been one of the problems. She was still young and wanted to have a lot of fun and my dad was older and wanted to settle down. That’s basically what I came to understand is that she wanted to have fun and he wanted to settle down so she went off and had fun and he settled down and eventually she left…”[12]

Grandma estimated that Opal left the family when she was about eight years old. “A divorce was imminent. For a few months, things were rough. Then Mattie Scott came to keep house…”[13] Mattie later married Ira on 16 June 1938, one month after the finalization of Ira’s divorce from Opal.[14] The divorce proceedings reveal that Opal nor anyone representing her attended the final hearing.[15] She had been served papers and had failed to respond within thirty days, or within an extended time frame, or at all. Ira maintained custody of their six children, and most of the property. Opal was paid $750 and was granted visitation rights – rights of which she never took advantage. From the time Opal left in about 1937, my grandmother did not see her biological mother for another thirty-four years.      

If, indeed, it was Opal’s lust for fun and adventure that eventually led to her abandoning the family, it seems that in the coming years she still did not find what she was looking for. Opal married Andrew Fedorenko just two weeks after her divorce from Ira.[16] The marriage would not last, and neither would Opal’s subsequent three marriages. Over the years, Opal wandered from marriage to marriage, job to job, all over the western United States. Most of this time, she had little contact with her children.

Years later, when Grandma and her siblings met in Salt Lake City to work on the genealogy and temple ordinances for their family, Brother Christiansen of the genealogy department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke with Opal’s children.[17] Barbara, the eldest, recalled, “he called us to repentance and told us that we should not judge [our mother], and that we should try to make contact and be friends and be forgiving.”[18] In this spirit, Grandma met with Opal for the first time in thirty-three years and some of her siblings made similar efforts. It was awkward, it was painful, it was frustrating, emotional and challenging. But over the following years, wounds began to heal. Grandma and Grandpa Woodbury still lived far away in Ohio and still had somewhat limited contact, but on their visits west, they visited with Opal in the convalescent home in Pocatello.[19] Barbara later recalled. “I do have good memories of our Mother… I’m glad that we did have the opportunity to get to know her again.”

One of Opal’s second great grandfathers engraved the following proverb on the wall of his home: “Wait till the evening to say if the day was good and wait till death to better judge a life.”[20] Genealogical research in many ways is an exercise in understanding. Although Opal’s choices left deep wounds in the lives of her family members, when we consider her life in its totality, motivations and reasons for her actions become clearer: long periods away from her own parents while attending school, the loss of her mother at a tender age, a close relationship with her grandparents which was put under strain after her marriage, the weight of added responsibilities after her mother’s death, navigating a complex relationship with her stepmother, eloping at a young age in hopes of escape, and bitter realizations that her “escape” only presented different and in some ways more difficult challenges and responsibilities, a childhood cut short by immense responsibilities and marriage to a man fourteen years her senior. All of this context aids our understanding. Opal’s life was complicated, a constant quest for satisfaction, and yet perhaps the satisfaction she sought all along was only to be found in the very relationships she had abandoned – the relationships that were rekindled in the evening days of her life.

Do you have stories, information or memories about Opal Coumerilh? If so, please share them in the comments below.


[1] Idaho, Southeast Counties Obituaries, 1864-2007 (index and images), death of Opal Gay Poehner, 24 May 1978, Blackfoot, Bingham, Idaho, https://www.familysearch.org, accessed April 2020.

[2] “Another New Town,” The Idaho Republican (Blackfoot, Idaho), 31 March 1905, p.7, https://www.newspapers.com/, accessed April 2020.

[3] “Blackfoot Day by Day,” The Bingham County News (Blackfoot, Idaho), 16 November 1911, p. 5, https://www.newspapers.com/image/375400795/, accessed April 2020.

[4] “School Notes: Central School Honor Roll,” The Idaho Republican  (Blackfoot, Idaho), 17 November 1911, p.8, https://www.newspapers.com/image/601136798/, accessed May April 2020; and,

“School Notes: Ranks for Central Schools,” The Bingham County News (Blackfoot, Idaho), 20 November 1913, p.1,

[5] “The Spelling Contest,” The Idaho Republican  (Blackfoot, Idaho), 21 April 1916, p.5, https://www.newspapers.com/image/601151902/, accessed May April 2020; and,

‘School Notes,” The Idaho Republican  (Blackfoot, Idaho), 28 April 1916, p.4, https://www.newspapers.com/image/601151927/, accessed April 2020.

[6] “Mrs. John Coumerilh called by Death,” The Idaho Republican (Blackfoot, Idaho), 24 November 1916, p.1, https://www.newspapers.com/image/601152974/, accessed April 2020.

[7] Utah, County Marriages, 1887-1940 (index), marriage of J H Coumerilh and Vivian Sullivan, 5 april 1917, Davis, Utah, no. 2319, https://familysearch.org, accessed April 2020.

[8] “Secretly Married,” The Idaho Republican (Blackfoot, Idaho), 14 December 1917, p. 5, https://www.newspapers.com/image/601155624/, accessed April 2020.

[9] Stoddard Family Reminisces, 1983.

[10] Stoddard Family Reminisces, 1983.

[11] Idaho, County Marriage Records, 1864-1967 (index and images), marriage of Ira Stoddard and Opal Coumerilh, 11 May 1920, Pocatello, Bannock, Idaho, instrument no. 77211, p. 459, https://www.ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed April 2020; and,

Idaho, County Marriage Records, 1864-1967 (index and images), affidavit for marriage license of Ira Stoddard and Opal Coumerilh, 11 May 1920, Pocatello, Bannock, Idaho, https://www.ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed April 2020;

[12] Fern Woodbury, Bob Stoddard, Jack Stoddard, and Barbara Rose, Stoddard Family Reminisces, 1983, p.9.

[13] Fern Woodbury, Bob Stoddard, Jack Stoddard, and Barbara Rose, Stoddard Family Reminisces, 1983, p.2.

[14] Utah, County Marriages, 1887-1940 (index), marriage of Ira Stoddard and Mattie Scott, 16 June 1938, Cache, Utah, no. 627, https://familysearch.org, accessed April 2020.

[15] Bannock County (Idaho), County Recorder, Decree of Divorce, Ira Stoddard vs. Opal Gay Stoddard, 13 May 1923, Pocatello, Bannock, Idaho, case 11390.

[16] Montana, County Marriages, 1865-1950 (index and images), marriage of Andrew Fedorenko and Gay Stoddard, 31 May 1938, Anaconda, Deer Lodge, Montana, p. 4033, https://www.familysearch.org, accessed April 2020.

[17] Frank and Fern Woodbury, Family History of Frank Alan Woodbury and Fern Laurine Stoddard: for our Grandchildren (December 1997), p. 22.  

[18] Fern Woodbury, Bob Stoddard, Jack Stoddard, and Barbara Rose, Stoddard Family Reminisces, 1983, p.9.

[19] Frank and Fern Woodbury, Family History of Frank Alan Woodbury and Fern Laurine Stoddard: for our Grandchildren (December 1997), p. 32.  

[20] Christian Desplat, “Les Memoires de Pierres de Joseph Ichante Pasteur d’Aydius en Aspe (1777-1857), Revue de Pau et du Béarn, 1988, no. 15, pp. 183-205.

6 thoughts on “Three Mothers: Part I – Opal Gay Coumerilh (1903-1978)

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