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Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Misses Babcock

Miss Helen Babcock, seated, on her 80th birthday in 1953, with her sister Miss Elizabeth Babcock - my Great Aunt Nell and Great Aunt Betty. The simplicity of the photo nevertheless illustrates the complexity of their sisterly relationship, as seen in their expressions and body language.


While we were out on the road on our cross country trip, Mom had read aloud to us from "Thunderbolt House" by Howard Pease, a Hardy Boys style mystery so captivating that vast stretches of each day passed with only the sound of Mom’s voice and the turning of pages. Through two complete readings back to back, plus a third on the return trip home, we listened to how the life of a small town California family in the early 1900s was transformed by the inheritance of a San Francisco mansion, how each member of the family was brought down by the their ascent into Nob Hill society, and how the only thing that saved them was the earthquake and fire that destroyed the city in 1906.

And so now here we were in Wisconsin, the book freshly closed and set aside, walking up to the door of a mansion as every bit a mystery as the one on the cover.

Ushered inside by a uniformed maid, we passed through heavily upholstered rooms with high gilded ceilings and brocaded walls into the presence of my father’s Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty, or - as they were locally known with grammatically archaic formality - the Misses Babcock. Tiny and stone deaf at 88, Aunt Nell was the first born, oldest living, and long established matriarch of the family. She had ridden a camel in Egypt, taken to the skies as a passenger in one of the first flying machines, and unlike most of her contemporaries had committed much of her life to helping those in need, and to giving unstintingly to all manner of community projects that a town the size of Neenah would not otherwise expect to enjoy. In sharp contrast, her taller but diffident sister Betty was the 79-year-old baby of the family who had spent most of her life under her sister's wing, supporting Nell's good works and taking care of the home.

Neither lady was more than dimly familiar to me as an eight-year-old, but their presence in our lives was far from remote or shadowy. At our great distance away in California we had been showered each year with a formidable array of Christmas gifts, and as each of us turned twelve these Wisconsin ladies marked our transitions into adulthood by substituting presents with an annual check made out for a manly $25, a sum so substantial and impressive at the time (Mom and Dad were given a joint $75) that opening a savings account followed without protest.

Every two or three years the aunts would also come out to San Francisco, at which point we would all be washed and dressed and taken into the city and briefly put on display for them at places like the
Mark Hopkins or the Fairmont or the Clift Hotel, institutions of such luxury and privilege that the visits were more like stereopticon views of foreign lands, vaguely distorted and so removed from our own time and way of life that they were easily set aside or forgotten, except as some passing curiosity. It never really occurred to those of us on display that the lives of these ladies were in any way umbilically connected to ours.

Occasionally the two of them might alternately come to our house as part of some larger family gathering, for which Mom would dedicate months to properly stage, first cleaning and reorganizing every corner and cupboard of the house, then preparing an elaborate meal inevitably using the entire Royal Doulton china service Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty had picked out with her at
Gump’s of San Francisco, their present to Mom when she married Dad. And when finally welcomed into our home with all the solemnity of visiting heads of state, the two sisters would very kindly comment on how perfectly everything had been arranged, and Aunt Betty in particular would remark on the dinner, noting that she was unable to get their cook to fix more than one vegetable and here Mom had prepared three.

My father, Henry Babcock Adams, walking my oldest brother Bob along the Neenah shoreline during their visit in 1941.  The tension that existed between them all their lives was clearly evident even then.

Mom, however, was certain that both Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty disapproved of her, recounting repeatedly as evidence the events of her first and only other trip to Wisconsin, which had taken place in 1941 when my oldest brother Bob - newly married at the time of our trip - was a rambunctious two-year-old. At lunch on the first day of that earlier visit Mom had taken Bob out of the ornate Victorian high chair that had been set up for his use and let him run around the dinner table as the adults continued to talk. She then took him upstairs to change his diaper and to her horror discovered that while the diaper had been soiled, it’s contents had escaped to parts unknown.

How the errant turd escaped from both the diaper and Bob's clothing remains a mystery, but during her ensuing search of the intricate patterns of oriental carpets and parquet flooring, Mom was approached by Aunt Betty who readily offered to help, assuming the hunt was for nothing more offensive than a missing earring. When apprised of the real objective, Aunt Betty turned white, then quickly mustered all available hands into a bucket brigade outfitted with mops, pans, cleaning fluids and flashlights. Eventually the wayward excreta was found on the dining room carpet, remarkably untrammeled given the number of parties involved in its recovery. And shortly thereafter, to Mom’s everlasting chagrin, a nurse was hired to take charge of Bob for the remainder of their visit so that Mom could relax more during her stay. From this Mom inferred that she had been cast as nothing less than an unfit mother.

Now some twenty years later there were four children in tow, all seated in that very same dining room around a table set with linen, china, crystal and sterling, being served fried chicken by a procession of maids in white organdy aprons, each carrying some part of the meal on silver platter perched upon little white cushions trimmed in tatted lace. Sitting next to Mom, I mumbled something about wanting ketchup and was shushed with a little more emphasis than I had normally come to expect. Moments later, however, a tiny silver pitcher of the stuff was set at my place, summonsed through the oracle of Aunt Betty’s attentive ear and a buzzer to the kitchen hidden under the carpet.

And while it seemed to me in the moment that nothing could have been more amazing than that little pitcher of ketchup, when the dinner dishes were removed each place was next set with a finger bowl of warm scented water, for any of us who might have used our fingers to pick up a chicken wing or leg. This fastidiously thoughtful interlude, preceding the apple pie and cheese, was no less astonishing and exotic to me than had a band of whirling Dervishes come spinning around the table.

I had never seen anything like it before - and never would again.

CHAPTER I continues HERE


  1. I certainly don't remember maids serving us at the table. Although I do remember Rose, the cook bringing in the food. I'll have to get on that with Ruth. Did you spend time at Aunt Fan's house too? The atmosphere there was so much different. (much less stuffy)

    And I always thought that picture was from Aunt Nell's 90th birthday.

    1. Aunt Betty told us that Rose took her role as cook seriously and for quite some time objected to serving on a matter of principle. She later relented, but only when there were no more than four guests. For larger parties, such as when the six of us visited, they called in Rose's predecessor in the kitchen, Alma Lang, and later their driver's daughter Sue. You're right, Aunt Fan was entirely different and I'll be talking about our visit with her in the next post. As for the above photo, Aunt Nell apparently got her picture taken with roses on her 80th and 90th birthdays. The 90th birthday photo is distinguishable by the shorter skirts (!), new library carpet (this one has a different pattern and is badly worn), and Aunt Nell's clearly diminishing vigor. Here's a link to a copy of that later photo in the Neenah Historical Society's photo stream -

    2. I remember both pictures & I guess that I had blended them together as the same event over the years. And also, there is one picture on the mantle in this one that is not there in the later one.


    3. In hunting up the pictures of Dad and Aunt Fan's house I found another set of birthday photos indicating that Aunt Nell had gotten a similar assortment of floral tributes on her 85th birthday, in addition to her 80th and 90th. No wonder Aunt Betty was determined to make it to her 90th birthday, so that she could get 90 roses like her sister had!

  2. Fantastic story. There is so much that I have forgotten from when Grandma told the stories to Gretchen and I as kids and I look forward to hearing more about Aunt Helen's excursion in Egypt with the camel.

    1. The trip I believe was part of the grand tour of Europe she went on after college with Dad's mother. Her letters home also admitted to "sleeping like the Scots" (in her underclothes) while they were in Scotland!

  3. Thank you for sharing your mother's most embarrassing and funniest story ever. An interesting quick read so far. Keep going! Christopher Collins

    1. Thanks for the interest, Chris. Mom's stories were such a big part of my growing up that putting them down into historical context is one of my goals for this blog - which as you can see here makes them more real and, if possible, funnier.

  4. I am old enough (82) to remember the little white cushions that supported the serving dishes...I got some for wedding shower gifts. I also remember buzzers under the lady of the house's place at the dining room table. My mother used a bell set at her place. We always sat in the same chairs at every evening dinner. If there was a roast my father carved it and served it at the table. We had day maids in the 1930's, but the war ended all of that, so my sister, Nancy, and I filled that capacity. My mother always cooked, since she was a superb cook. We helped her, and always did the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. When our house on Lake Road in Menasha was built, we had an early dishwasher. One of our playmates looked inside it and asked "where are the hands?"
    I loved reading about Miss Betty and Miss Nell. I could always see them in Church since they always sat in the same pew...down front. I was in the choir, and although we were directed not to look out into the audience, I could see them well..They sat just below where the minister gave the sermon.
    In the 60's I was on the board of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Wisconsin State Historical Society..a fund raising group. We had a pilgrimage to Neenah, and I was in charge. Luncheon at the old Valley Inn, tours, etc.
    I went to the Babcock sisters and asked them if they would open their home.
    Without hesitation they said "yes." It was the hit of the pilgrimage.
    Gretchen Maring

  5. Gretchen, I hope you will continue to look in and add comments about the things you remember, not just about my family but about all the other people in Neenah-Menasha that makes it one of the most fascinating places on earth. Whatever memories come to mind - I love the dishwasher story! - really makes it all come alive.

  6. I spent a good deal of time in the house next door, where my mother and her siblings grew up, and my grandparents still lived, but don't remember ever being "inside" the Babcock house (.I too was in the choir with Gretchen and aware of the two sisters every Sunday mornings.)
    There were at least a dozen children living on Stevens Street during the War years, and in the fall a seasonal ritual was to climb the wooden fence behind the Babcock house and dive head first into a huge pile of composting leaves. I was usually the "watch out" person as sooner or later one of the gardeners would discover us and chase us away.
    That section of Wisconsin Avenue and around the lake was known as "Gold Brick Road" Many of the industrialists had built these homes and because of the scope and numbers of them, Neenah was called "the little Newport" of the Mid-west.
    My cousins and I loved to play on the 3rd floor, which contained storage rooms, the maids' rooms, a half bath and a large ball room extending across the entire front of the house, with a stage on one end. Just below the ceiling ran a continuous line of pastel colored light bulbs, and ladder back chairs sat below. I was told that many dances had been held by my grandparents when they were younger, as well as plays when the Shattuck children first lived there, and later Mom's generation followed by myself and my cousins. In the cedar storage room were beautiful beaded dresses with short fringes circa 1920's along with many fancy hats, fur stoles and other stored clothes that were perfect for us to dress up and have our own plays.
    Through a small door in that hall was a dark little stairway that led to the "widow walk" on the top of the house. A few times my grandfather took us up there where we could look across the park and river and watch the fireworks on the 4th of July.
    Each house had it's own special features, and I loved the use of different hardwoods for each room-cherry, walnut, tiger maple, and oak, hand carved mantles, silk brocade wallpaper and the gold leaf ceilings and room sized Persian rugs.
    The music room was my favorite and where we usually gathered before and after dinner. There was always a coal fire burning when it got cold, and over the mantle a portrait of my grandfather done in the 30's when a traveling artist came to town. On one wall was a beautiful inlay desk where my Nana always kept a package of gum for us, and above a portrait of her by the same artist. And in a large window area at one end stood a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano, one of two belonging to Arthur Shattuck, which "came with the house" when they purchased it in 1922.
    I have the original sales slips and inventory from S.F. Shattuck, which included a very large lot, the house, and a lot of the antique furniture, for about $20,000.(the historical society has a copy )

    By the time I was born there was only a cook living there, and a yard man who came each day, but when my mother was young there were several maids to take care of cleaning and watching the younger children and the pets. I have an old movie taken in 1926 of my Aunt Shirley's birthday party where every child attending had a "nursemaid" with them, all dressed in white uniforms.
    We rented an old movie from our library this fall called "Come and Get it".
    The lead man represented the head of a big paper company and his house was a replica of Jim Kimberly's house on the river. It was made in the 30's and showed the kind of life being led in Neenah at the turn of the century by those of means.
    When ever we come back to the Fox Valley we take the time to drive past the big house and remember the happy times had,

  7. Thank you so much sharing so many of your memories. I hope you'll continue to read my posts and add more thoughts and recollections as they occur to you. "Gold Brick Road" I hadn't heard before - and it certainly isn't very flattering, is it? I know Wisconsin Avenue was Piety Hill and Piety Row after alcohol was banned in Riverside Park, and later for a time it was referred to as Widows Row when Mrs. Sherry, my great grandmother, Mrs. Shattuck, and Mrs. Clark were left to carry on alone. I hope you'll let me know the next time you're in town so we can be sure and get you inside!

  8. I would love that....especially since during our panel on Bill Brehm's book about the history of the Fox Valley I discovered by reading Havilah Babcock's family tree that we had a common ancestor in Captian James Babcock and Elizabeth Saunders' daughter Elizabeth, who married my ancestor, Thomas Clarke back in 1710. (and our connection with Nathan Bergstrom, who lived on the other side of the house where my mother was raised.)
    I gave all the old movie films to the Wisconsin Historical Society ...including some great shots of your family home in the 1920's great ice storm, in hopes they could be preserved since they spent 50 years in a paper bag in a closet in my parents' home.
    I also donated several very sweet letters that Hugh Strange, who ived on the other side of the Babcock house, and I called "Uncle Who Who, wrote me on my birthdays, the last one being shortly before he died...and the ornate Victorian high chair that the Babcock children used and was then given to my grandparents when I was small, and for 2 more generations of my family to the Neenah Historical Society.
    I think you idea of bringing the history of the grand old houses and their families in Neenah is a great idea, especially since many of "us" who still remember are getting old, and a lot of the people who live there now have no idea of that history.

  9. That Victorian high chair was the one mentioned in this post. Mom said Bob discovered right away that he was big enough to rock it from side to side, which he turned into a game, worrying Mom and the aunts and generally making a nuisance of himself before being set down to run around the table. Bob turns 74 this year and recently told me he thought he remembered nothing about the trip in 1941, but the first time he returned to Neenah as an adult some years ago, he was taking a bath in the clawfoot tub in the back bathroom and was suddenly struck by the realization, "I've been here before," which of course he had as that was the bathroom where Mom said he had been given his baths in 1941.

  10. It is really fun to read your stories and memories recalled. Our family had one trip to Neenah( 1969) and your stories of Rose triggered off a funny memory of ours. We could never figure out how Rose would come out just in time for something and we realized there was a button under the table. So here we are four kids on the floor trying to figure out where it was without Aunt Betty looking. My other mischievious memory of the huge mansion was there were skeleton keys in each of the doors and for two ten year olds...we thought it fun(?) to take them all out at once. My poor parents were mortified and were spending time figuring out which key went to which door. How ambarrassing looking back at it. I wondered why we never went back...haha...actually Aunt Betty came to visit us in Eugene and I have a couple of sweet pictures of me reading to her..

    1. I love it! I can picture you all under the table! As for the keys, I remember hearing from one of your brothers that the prank was not discovered until after you back on the road and your dad was none to pleased with his children on that occasion! I'd love to see the picture. Is that something you can scan and email to me?

  11. Sorry for the delay..just reading this now..I can try to see if I can retrieve a pic and if I can I will scan and email it to you. The key story may have been told after we left Neenah.....As I recall after my parents told Aunt Betty about the keys, Aunt Betty responded in a gracious response as in amazement of the things children will think of these days.


    1. It was either one of your brothers or your mom - or maybe it was Aunt Dot! - who first told me that story, and as I recall when your Dad found them in back playing with these keys turned the car around and returned them. And yes, Aunt Betty wasn't the least bit perturbed and said, "What won't children think of these days!" For as formal and reserved as she was, Aunt Betty was very understanding of human nature and loved to have the noise and excitement of people around her. We were here one Christmas and I had gotten a new fangled hair dryer/styler for my then long hair. That night, thinking the house was so big no one would hear, I tried it out. The next morning Aunt Betty asked me if I had used it before going to bed and I said I had, asking if she could tell the difference, not having a clue that I had kept her up with all that racket! And she never voiced a word of complaint.

  12. Hi Peter,

    Just wanted to thank you for starting this blog. I just discovered it from a story on the post-crescent. I'm a HUGE fan of this house and love reading about Neenah history. I do local photography and I want to share this image I did of your house.

    I'm looking forward to reading over the entire blog now. It will be great reading on the other mansions of the area as well. Thanks so much for proving this information.

    1. I've seen your photos already. Really great techniques! Right now the newest posts are about how we came to Neenah, which I'm sure you'll find interesting but not directly about Neenah. I'll then be getting back to Neenah history as I uncovered it. Kind of a detective approach with lots and lots of stories and anecdotes.

    2. Thanks Peter. Will you be posting more photos of the inside of the house? I would love to see them.

      Love the detective approach and looking forward to learning more.


    3. Unfortunately I don't have any more of the same quality. The ones I used were provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society from their book, "Wisconsin's Own." There are a few more in the book, which I think most local libraries have. As for old photographs, interior shots of these houses are pretty hard to come by.

      I'm also glad you like the approach I'm taking. The idea is to let the reader experience what I experienced and come to their own conclusions.