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Sunday, February 3, 2013

All In The Family

This photo is one of my favorites. It was taken on June 17, 1901 two doors down from our house at the home of John Stevens, to record the marriage of his daughter Jessica to Paul Kelley of Chicago. Mr. Stevens, father of the not-so-typical bride, stands guard on the right at the bottom of the steps, while the smirking happy couple look on from the stairs directly behind him. The other more sober-minded guests in this rare photo are members of Neenah's leading industrial families (as immediately apparent by the parade of hats that look like they might have been designed by Cecil Beaton for the Royal Ascot scene in "My Fair Lady"). Also on board are several Ilsleys of Milwaukee's Marshall & Ilsely banks, and a couple of Chicago HonorĂ©s, relations of Mrs. Potter PalmerThis was Jessica's third attempt at marital bliss, the first being to Harvard star athlete and University of Wisconsin head football coach Herbert Alward, who died tragically of typhoid fever in 1897. Left with an infant daughter, the young widow next married Gilbert Allis of Milwaukee, whose relations were among the founders of Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Co. and the city of West Allis, Wisconsin. The union of Jessica and Gilbert, an elopement, ended a scandalous week after their return from a European honeymoon. Now here tying the knot yet again, Jessica had by this point a well-established reputation for being "wild" (she was said to have a developed taste for cigars). This, however, was no social hindrance to the elite well-wishers in the photo, who in reality had no choice in the matter when it came to their attendance. They nearly all believed themselves to be related to the bride in some way, even if they didn't know exactly how(See the Photo Album - The People page for a complete listing of all the guests.)


In 1929 Hungarian author and journalist Frigyes Karinthy first posed the idea that everyone on earth was linked together in a chain of connection through no more than six other people. Some sixty years later his theory was popularized by the Pulitzer-nominated John Guare play, appropriately titled "Six Degrees of Separation" (and after that the celebrity parlor game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). In a somewhat ironic illustration of the basic theory, both the John Guare play and the 1993 film adaptation starred Stockard Channing, who previously had appeared in the forgettable science fiction comedy, "Meet the Applegates," which in 1990 was filmed in Neenah right behind our house on Stevens Street (seen five minutes into the above YouTube link). 

Now here’s where it gets more interesting. During the filming my wife and I met Channing, through whom by only one degree of separation we became connected to John Travolta (with whom Channing co-starred in the 1978 movie "Grease"), by only two degrees to the late Princess Diana (who danced with Travolta at the White House in 1985), and by a third degree beyond that to Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prince William, and - to those like my niece Hannah who fancy him - Prince Harry. The very lovely Middleton sisters are out one degree farther, and those of you who know me or my wife personally are only one degree farther still, well within the requisite six degrees. 

In Neenah the application of this theory expands exponentially due to the intermarriage of its industrial elite over five generations. Fortunately, the number of these families is discrete and easily enumerated. At the top of the pile - albeit by my own possibly biased ranking - are the Kimberlys, Clarks, Babcocks and Shattucks, due to their international presence in the founding of Kimberly-Clark. After that in less distinct order are the Gilberts and Whitings (who lived in Neenah but whose paper mills were located in neighboring Menasha), the Stranges and Menasha Wooden Ware Smiths (who like the Gilberts and Whitings were leading Menasha industrialists with established residency in Neenah), the Bergstroms (local stove manufacturers whose paper mill interests date from 1904), the Davises (who sold their mill holdings to the Bergstroms in that year), the Stevenses (John Stevens made his money in flour and then unthinkably retired at age 40 to enjoy life and spend his money), the lumbering Sherrys who shocked the town to its core by going bankrupt (divorce and murder were far more acceptable and less horrific crimes than losing money), and the Howards (whose fortune they bragged was based on buying and selling mills rather than operating them with any apparent skill or determination). 

Another of my favorite photos. This undated image appears to be a neighborhood - and by default family - Fourth of July picnic held behind the homes of Mmes. D. L. Kimberly and C. B. Clark. In all copies of the picture that I've seen, the man up on his feet serving coffee to guests (while the maids calmly attend to some business in the background) is consistently identified as my great-grandfather, Havilah Babcock. The subtext of the photo subtly illustrates how he stood out from other men of his era - and his popularity with women - stepping in here without ceremony to act as defacto host for two widowed relations. The number of circulating copies of this otherwise unidentifiable photo of him is interesting commentary in itself.

Historically later but of arguably greater significance are the Sensenbrenners (rising up in the ranks and leading Kimberly-Clark during its development of consumer products), and the Mahlers (who developed those products and quite wisely held title to the patents on them). Earlier but of equal significance for their role as the connective tissue linking many of these families together were the banking Hewitts, the millwright Oborns, and lawyerly Kerwins. Lastly, forming a comparatively lowly but still honorable rear guard were the knitting mill Jersilds, the banking Van Ostrand and Shiells families, and the merchantile Jandrey, Kellett, and Elwers people. 

Given Neenah’s relative isolation, it’s not surprising that Kimberlys were wedded to Hewitts, Babcocks, and Bergstroms, or that there were further multiple marital connections between the Babcocks, Hewitts and Bergstroms. Or that there were even more family ties linking these families to the Whiting, Davis, Smith, Clark and Sensenbrenner families, and through these linkages to the Stevenses, Gilberts, and Kerwins - and from them additional loops back to the Babcocks, Smiths, and Kimberlys, to provide only the briefest synopsis of the genetic complications that had been created.  

The genealogy was so complex that when the Manufacturers' National Bank of Neenah opened the city's first trust department, the secretary hired on was strictly instructed not to talk about anyone. Period. "Whoever you're talking to will be related to whomever you're talking about," she was advised. Mabel Kimberly Gilbert - my second cousin twice removed who was genealogically speaking a Kimberly, Hewitt, and Gilbert - was more blunt and to the point. At the far side of eighty when I interviewed her, she was sharp as a tack and had a deliciously wicked sense of humor. 

"It's a miracle we weren't a lot stupider than we were." 

CHAPTER I continues HERE


  1. You are a wonderful writer, Peter, and I am glad to see you have been inspired by my book Furs, Fir, and Fourdrinier about the links between Neenah pioneers. I am really enjoying your blog which carries these stories forward. See you in Neenah on March 21st. Bill

    1. I was very impressed with your discovery of the Kimberly connection to the Roosevelts. I have no idea where my grandmother stayed when she went to study art with Daniel Chester French in New York. Makes me wonder if there wasn't a link there.

  2. Oh, this was a great read, and the photographs are something everybody interested in social history or family history would just be thrilled to find in an album or old box somewhere. I do adore the hats of the ladies in the wedding photograph - I've not seen too many photographs taken here in Wisconsin that show such finery - usually the fashionable types were thought to *only* come from Chicago, and when they came "up north" they wore summer cottage living clothing. Take that, city of the big shoulders down south of us! You might have had Marshall Field's ("Give the lady what she wants" - their wonderful motto) - but when the gowns and hats were packed up, it seems at least some of them found their way to Neenah, Wisconsin. I really enjoyed this entry, Peter - can't wait to read more!

    1. Thank you! I enjoyed writing it. I don't know if I've got more on hats, but I do have plenty of stories coming up about clothes and shopping in Chicago. The next post, however, is going to be about the houses in the neighborhood. Be sure and check the Photo Album page for the pictures that don't fit into the post.