Lou Cox — from her farm in Kansas to Church Street
In thousands of dictionaries all over the world, right next to the definition of the word elegant, is a picture of Lou Cox. Those are the books of practically everyone who has ever met her. Refined gracefulness … that’s Lou.
It’s not just the regal stature or fashion sense or even the crown of silver waves; it’s the warmth, the smiling eyes and her fixation on effortlessly introducing you around if you’re new to the group, or new in town. Even if you’re not, Lou doesn’t take chances, she gently makes everyone feel welcome.
Anna Louise Wygant was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, the second of Dr. Lynn and Mildred Elise Wygant three daughters. The Wygant sisters – Barbara, Lou and Elyce, had a good life in New Castle. Dad was a doctor and Mom, a former beauty queen. Lou was bitten by the acting bug in high school and coupling that with her love of Art and English Lit, she went off to Westminster College knowing what she wanted to do. Well into her four years, tragedy struck. The fraternity boy to whom Lou was pinned was killed in a car crash. Bottom line, Lou changed course, left Westminster and went to Florida with her parents to heal her heart.
After awhile she interviewed for the training programs at Northwest and TWA and was accepted by both. Her choice was TWA. It was the era in the friendly skies when a first class ticket guaranteed you leg room, a real meal served on china and a helpful flight attendant. “I had the Kansas city to New York run and loved it. Every time I had a New York layover I went to the theater.” Lou recalled, and then with a laugh. ” Kansas was a dry state and the air space was dry too. So when we flew over Kansas the pilot would announce ‘Ladies and gentlemen, put down you drinks.”
One night, on a flight to Topeka, the lovely stewardess – for that’s what they were called – met a handsome young farmer from Kansas, Dana Cox, on his way back to Kansas State University for a fraternity reunion. Fast forward and Dana and Lou were married and living in Sedgwick, Kansas on the Cox family farm. It was a partnership with Dana’s grandparents at the helm. His parents also lived in the compound. There were a thousand head of sheep, Jersey cows, chickens, hay and vegetables. Later there were cattle. Lou had never been on a farm in her life. She wasn’t used to the 114 degree summer days and cooking three squares for farmhands but she did settle in and soon, like she did everything else, she was handling it all, and beautifully. “I missed my art,” she said. “There were no museums and few concerts but there were two wonderful women who lived down the lane and who loved the arts as much as I did.” The three new friends would go into Wichita for museums and concerts, to the library in town and just get together and talk about things other than farming.
Lou and Dana started their family in the mid-fifties. First Holiday came along, then Shon, then Willow and Elyce. The photos of the four little girls on the farm are something out of a movie. Lou took up drawing again and the girls were growing as was the farm and for the next ten years it was a good and busy life. The one sad note was the death of Lou’s mother-in-law, also Mildred, whom she adored and for whom she cared during the illness. Then shortly before the advent of the 70s, the unspeakable happened. Holiday Lynn Cox, a bright sweetheart of a teenager, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and when she died in 1972 the light went out of the Cox family farm.
The recession of the 70s hit the Kansas farming community hard. Very hard. Family farms were disappearing right in front of the country’s eyes. For the Cox farm it was not that drastic but things weren’t good. As her art had always been a comfort, Lou put her talent to work at an advertising agency in Newton, Kansas where she drew cartoons for Grabbers’ Ace Hardware, the Newton Kansan Daily, and the “He Said” column in Kansas Farmer, North Dakota Farmer, South Dakota Farmer, Illinois Farmer.
Her work was in demand so she went free-lance and was soon creating fashion ads for upscale stores, Henry’s and Lewin’s, in Wichita and Terry Blosky in Hutchinson. With her two German Shepherds, Dolly and Mame, at her feet, Lou created non-stop from her studio at the farm. As Shon, Willow and Elyce were well into their teens working from home was a good choice. Then, photography and graphics took over the fashion ad market and Lou went to work for a local doctor as office manager. There she learned business skills that helped pave her way toward a very bold step.
It was clear that the farm community wasn’t going to rebound so Lou devised a plan and with Dana’s buy-in, turned their farmhouse into The Inn at Sedgwick. Once again, Lou had never done anything like this in her life but had an innate sense of how it should be done right. The Inn was all charming atmosphere and leisurely dining. “I love to cook,” said Lou, “and we decided to open on weekends only because we were twenty miles from a solid customer base.” This formula worked like a charm and soon, dining at The Inn required an advance reservation of two months. Lou’s skill as a chef and innkeeper were that good. The fare was simple and delicious: four entrees, vegetables from the garden and great desserts like blackberry cobbler, chocolate butter cake and strawberry/rhubarb pie. People traveled for miles to dine there and it became the place for corporations like Boeing and Enterprise to hold private parties. Every food critic in the two county area gave Lou’s place four stars.
Five years after the Inn opened, they renovated the “little house” next to the “big house,” and turned it into a B&B. Lou continued to hone her skills in the kitchen and her business savvy and charm out front. She continually tried to improve both and at one point studied at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Always good at prioritizing, she found more time to give to her church. She was president of the Christ Reform Church Guild for twelve years and taught Sunday school for eighteen. Finally it was time to leave the The Inn, the farm and Kansas. The girls were long grown and successfully out on their own and their parents missed them.
“We wanted to be closer to the kids,” said Lou. So while they, Dana, Lou and Lou’s mother, were “meandering” east they happened upon Shepherdstown. Lou took one look and that was it for her. It was where she wanted to settle. But, it wasn’t where Dana wanted to live so he decided to become a New Yorker. Lou bought a place for her mother and herself at Cress Creek and started making plans to build in town.
“One of my first introductions to what’s so good about Shepherdstown came when my daughter Elyce, my mother and I were shopping and wandered into John Shank and Joe Matthew’s antique shop. John and I must have talked for an hour.” I was having some people over that evening and when we left the shop Elyce said ‘Mother you go right back in there and I invite those men to your party.’ So I did and they came and we’ve been friends ever since.” That’s the way it is in Shepherdstown, uniquely friendly.
Lou moved into her new Adams-Federalist home on Church Street in 2000. The house, with a large crowd-friendly, well-used kitchen as its heart, is perfect. And though she gives Jim Schmidt credit for it’s splendor, it’s all Lou. So in keeping with the Shepherdstown architecture is this place you can’t help but be surprised at its true age. It just fits in.
Lou Cox has been an integral part of the Shepherdstown community since she arrived, as president of the governing body or Consistory of Christ Reform Church, as “chief cook and bottle washer” of the advent tea to benefit the building fund, as cartoonist for the Chronicle, and working member of the Garden Club, and the Entler Historical Museum board, she contributes mightily. And almost from the day she moved here, ten years ago, Lou has been driving for Good Shepherd Caregivers.
As crazy about Shepherdstown and her new friends as she is, Lou’s life has always been about her family – her daughters, her five granddaughters, her “beloved” sister Elyce Schmidt and their families as they continue to grow. Plans for a Wygant family reunion are now complete and soon the families Wygant, Cox, Arons, Boman, Schmidt and all others will be heading to Florida for a four-day party.
A food critic once wrote, “The Inn at Sedgwick has achieved a reputation for fine dining in a rural but refined setting. All fresh flowers in casual arrangements.” He only had to add “all the creation of an elegant spirit and warm heart” to capture the lady herself.
– Sue Kennedy is a former public relations executive and Emmy Award winning screenplay writer.