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Friday, June 21, 2013

You Saw Your Duty




Another one from my little Instamatic, this is Great Aunt Nell's Room. The desk in the tower is where I did much of my initial research, and it is where Aunt Nell's scrupulously maintained line-a-day diaries were kept. Aunt Betty conveyed a certain concern about these diaries, fearful perhaps of what Aunt Nell might have revealed about herself in them, as well as what Aunt Nell may have recorded about her sister (a medium doing a walk through of the house made reference to the diaries in the desk and correctly determined that they had been moved to the attic). Aunt Nell used this room more as a personal retreat, she and her sister sharing another room at the back of the house for sleeping. Towards the end of their lives my Aunt Dot - who was more like a younger sister to them than a niece - badgered Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty so relentlessly about their sleeping in a dark and pokey room while this one lay vacant, that eventually they moved their twin beds  in here. The move made it easier in Aunt Nell's final days to bring in a hospital bed - purchased rather than rented to be in place when Aunt Betty would need it in her turn.




NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. To refresh your memory of  where we left off in the last post, "I Just Won't Cook Them Lima Beans," go HERE.

CHAPTER II, Part 10

Having written the biography of my grandmother and identified the old photos Dad had somehow saved from his mother's house, there was only one clear next step for me to take. During the summer of 1971 when I was still only 17-years old, it was arranged for me to spend several days in Neenah with Great Aunt Betty to learn more about our family history. I don't recall how the plan was concieved - or even if it was entirely my idea - but Aunt Betty was glad for the company and agreed to help in any way she could.  In booking the bus tickets, however, I was surprised to learn that neither Alfred nor Louis would be able to pick me up at the station in nearby Appleton, there being no Greyhound service from Minneapolis to Neenah.  I had never traveled anywhere on my own at that point, and in these days before the Internet the inability of determining how I was to catch a local bus from Appleton to Neenah (not knowing how late, how often or even where these buses ran) was more than a little intimidating.  Mom made a fuss about the uncertainty, which made my concern and determination greater, while Dad, in a surprisingly expansive mood, said if need be I could always take a taxi, which in my mind only produced more questions and anxieties. Given that Alfred and Louis had shuttled Nesta Edwards back and forth to Milwaukee, I was more than a little put out by the situation, but in the months to come I circumstances would become increasingly clear to me.

The trip across Wisconsin took the better part of the day, and as it turned out the local bus to Neenah left from the Appleton Greyhound stop and deposited me downtown at a small grimy gas station (today an immaculate boutique Chinese restaurant), where an inexplicably grumpy Alfred shuttled me the remaining five blocks  to the house. Even though it was fairly late in the evening, Aunt Betty was waiting up to welcome me and show me up to Aunt Nell's old room before trundling off to bed herself. I had shared this room in the past with my brother Steve as there were twin beds, one of which had been replaced by the hospital bed in which Aunt Nell had died in 1966. The room was more modern than the rest of the house, having been redecorated in the Arts and Crafts style around 1911 - striped moiré wallpaper, randomly arranged ivory matted engravings and pastels, chintz upholstery, bookcases with leaded glass doors, the ceiling, walls and floor coverings all in the same shade of aquamarine (Aunt Nell's favorite color). For the next several days I would work in the room's tower at Aunt Nell's mahogany desk, the drawers full of her diaries - which I would learn made Aunt Betty very nervous and that I left scrupulously untouched.

The next day I discovered that Aunt Betty had pulled together a dozen or more books and pamphlets for me to read. There were genealogies of the Babcock and Kimberly families, several histories of Neenah and Kimberly-Clark Corporation, as well as printed recollections of the city's early settlement days that involved a host of cousins and other relatives. In fairly short order I was able to follow my English Babcock relatives from their arrival in Rhode Island in 1642, and from there to Vermont's Canadian border and out to the Territory of Wisconsin by 1846. As for my Kimberly ancestors, they in their turn made a similar journey from England to Massachusetts in 1635, and from there to upstate New York and then on to Wisconsin in 1848, where John and Harvey Kimberly were determined to replicate in Neenah the same success their cousin Dr. Edmund Stoughton Kimberly had in the founding of Chicago and Rush Medical College. And while the Kimberlys were by far more consistently successful, the Babcocks were not without their own claims to fame. Dr. Joshua Babcock was a chief justice of colonial Rhode Island and friend of both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin (the Babcock-Smith House in Westerly is now a museum), whereas Brigadier General Orville Babcock was General Grant's aid-de-camp at Appomatox and later President Grant's personal secretary - and as such a key player in the Whiskey Ring scandal. As it turned out both Babcock and Kimberly families also had rather astonishing connections to the Roosevelt family: Dr. Kimberly's son Augustus was the husband of President Theodore Roosevelt's cousin Margaret, while Dad's cousin Anne Babcock was the wife of Theodore Roosevelt III.




The Kimberly Double House was built as a duplex in 1849 for John Robbins Kimberly and his brother Harvey Latimer Kimberly, originally of Troy, New York. Shown here in the 1890s, the Double House was considerably smaller in its original incarnation, being only two stories in the center portion, and with no imposing portico or flanking verandahs. When first married, my great-grandparents Havilah Babcock and Frances Kimberly lived in the west side on the left. After their first child, Aunt Nell, was born, they moved to a house closer to town. Being neighbors to her bellicose Uncle John proved to be too much for my great grandmother, that and the fact that the kitchen was in a detached structure behind the house - a measure intended to reduce the threat of house fires but thoroughly impractical in Wisconsin's harsh winters.



From these genealogies and histories I was able to put together the first pieces of a complex family and community history with which I would continue to be fascinated for the rest of my life, if only because it was embodied in the house in which I was at that moment staying. Sitting down with Aunt Betty in the library, a borrowed Bell & Howell reel-to-reel tape recorder running between us, I learned how her father, my great-grandfather Havilah Babcock, had come to Neenah from Vermont as a boy and become friends with John Kimberly's son Alfred, how the two of them, still in their teens, had been set up by Alfred's father in the dry goods business, and how the two of them had joined forces with C. B. Clark and F. C. Shattuck to form Kimberly, Clark & Company in 1872, the same year Havilah married Alfred's cousin Frances Kimberly. The newlyweds spent their first year of marriage in the west side of the Kimberly's Double House, where my Aunt Nell had been born. The following year they moved to a house on Commercial Street that years later would be torn down to make way for the gas station where Alfred had picked me up. That was where all the other children had been born: Caroline - my grandmother - Harry, George and Betty. An oil portrait hanging on the wall near us came from that house and had been painted using a tintype of the three oldest children. A bust of my great grandfather also looked down from the top of a bookshelf . It had been done years later by Caroline, "Callie," my grandmother, the dark-haired little girl in the portrait when she was a young woman and a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, having become enthralled by sculpture while studying in New York City under Daniel Chester French, creator of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Aunt Betty explained how her father had been particular about every facet of building this house. "The foundations had to sit and settle a full year before he would let any of the work begin," she said. Every available modern convenience had been incorporated into its design: central heat, a flush toilet and plumbing to "stationary washstands" in every bedroom, speaking tubes connecting the working areas of the house with an early form of intercom, and light fixtures - gas and electric - well before the service of either was generally available. "We were the first house in town with electricity," Aunt Betty explained, adding that it was made possible by an Edison generator installed at Kimberly-Clark's Globe Mill downtown, yet never explaining how the wires were run between the two. And while the unexpected success of Kimberly-Clark had made their family rich, they moved into the house in 1883 with bare plaster walls, living that way for all of five years, at which point artisans came up from  Milwaukee to complete his vision of the perfect home, complete with narrative fireplace tiles. "Father told us these were Lancelot and Guinevere," Aunt Betty said of those in the front hall, adding that the library tiles were of Dante, Socrates and Lord Byron, the meaning of which I would not be able to grasp until another forty years had passed.

And when this work was done Aunt Betty recalled how her parents had hosted a glamorous "at home" reception in 1889, to welcome Alfred Kimberly's daughter Helen and her husband W. Z. Stuart back from their brief but traditional wedding tour. I would later learn from old newspapers how 300 invitations had been issued with only a handful of regrets, few being willing to miss a glimpse of the house and the novelty of electric lights. The guests, Aunt Betty said, arrived by carriage at the port-cochere, left their cloaks with attendants stationed in the sitting room,  and then proceeded through the reception line in the parlor to meet the ill-fated couple, after which refreshments were served from the dining room. A small orchestra played on hall landing, and the catering was handled by a firm from Milwaukee. Aunt Betty was six years old at the time, and she remembered that in addition to there being rather handsome African American waiters, a boy some years older than her was also in attendance wearing a turban and running coats from the sitting room upstairs and down again when needed. "I remember standing right there watching him," she said pointing to the doorway into the hall. "I wanted to say something, but he was too busy." 




Although I have no picture of myself on the back porch with Aunt Betty, this one of her and Aunt Nell from the 1960s captures the experience on a hot summer day perfectly. Complete with cloth, sterling and best china, meals would be served with the same formality as in the dining room. When this table needed to be replaced the purchase of another one created no end of problems for Aunt Betty, who eventually settled on one from Sears Roebuck with an unheard of Formica top. What isn't shown in this picture are the surrounding gardens - and the carpets on the porch floor. They were Kimlark rugs, made by Kimberly-Clark of an amazingly durable paper-based twisted cording like sisal. We have two generations of them rolled up in the hayloft of the barn.



As the interview continued Aunt Betty became more and reflective. In her teens she remembered asking her mother if she had many beaux at her age. "What a thing to ask your mother!" was the answer she recalled. "Why do you suppose she said that?" she asked me, genuinely perplexed. At another point she looked down at the tape recorder to see if it was running and asked me to turn it off. When I promised that I would erase the tape after I had taken notes, she looked off in the distance and said, "If my parents made any mistake with me it was that I was always treated as the baby," she said. "I was never expected to do anything." It was at this point that I felt comfortable enough to ask what was a very stupid question, prefacing it by saying that she didn't have to answer if she didn't want to. "Then maybe I just won't tell you," she said with a coquettish smile. Having asked many questions about her father's life and career and work throughout the interview, I followed up this line of questions with asking what her father was worth when he died. And I can see now as clearly as if it this had been asked yesterday, how her smile vanished and her face became inexpressibly sad. "I have no idea," she replied, without a word indicating that the door was closed on that subject. The next day I understood why. She said a representative from some charitable cause would be calling on her, to which I offered to vacate the library. "I won't see him in here," she said. "I'll see him in the sitting room. He says it's a social call, but all he's interested in is money." 

Her father's great wealth had been a blessing and a curse, and while I had miss-stepped I had opened a door and - if only briefly - gained her trust. There had developed a connection of sorts between us, between the pimply fat boy and the grey-haired old lady approaching the end of life. For as old as Aunt Betty was, she remembered and understood exactly where I was in life, and treated me with a respect and humorous affection that I have since found only rarely. In the days that followed she asked me if there was any particular dish I would like Rose to make. As instructed by Mom I insisted that anything would be fine with me, at which Aunt Betty suggested stuffed tomatoes, which I agreed to even though they were something that I hated beyond all reason.  So that very afternoon, seated on the back porch where we overlooked Aunt Nell's garden and were served by Rose on a pattern of Royal Copenhagen picked to coordinate with the simple décor, a tomato was set down before me, not stuffed with a mitigating tuna or chicken salad, but with a mixture of what was then to me a nauseating combination of cottage cheese, chopped nuts and raisins. How I was able to finish this unimaginable horror I have no idea, but when we were done, Aunt Betty smiled and very quietly said, "You saw your duty and you did it." On another occasion, when I came down to lunch in bare feet, Aunt Betty said nothing but just looked at my feet. "It looks like I came down without my shoes on," I said excusing myself. We understood each other perfectly.

And then it was time for me to leave. "I thought maybe you'd stay for Sunday. After church we could take flowers out to the cemetery," Aunt Betty said, her disappointment unmistakable. I had no idea then what this had meant to her, what I was being asked to become a part of with her, and I have regretted not staying over another day ever since.



CHAPTER II continues HERE.

6 comments:

  1. I continue to really enjoy reading all of this family history and love looking at the photos as well. I was so young when I went to Neenah that only Aunt Betty was alive in that big old house. She really did seem to have such a sweet and loving spirit. I do remember that well. I loved when she visited us in Eugene when I was in 4th grade or 5th grade.

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    1. Aunt Betty always thought of herself as the baby of the family, and I think that was what made it possible for her to have such an affinity for young people.

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  2. Looking at the early History of Westerly RI, I discovered John Babcock founded it in 1649. The first American Clarke, Joseph was born in 1642 in Newport, married Bethiah Hubbard and died in Westerly in 1707. His son Thomas married Elizabeth Babcock in 1710. One of the Clarke's married a first cousin...in a small colony back then one sees they often married those neighbors or friends or even family. I didn't know until now that granite was the "industry" It is interesting that both Babcocks and Clarkes went to New York and later to Wisconsin, where they lived in and close to Neenah and attended the same church.

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    1. Your Elizabeth Babcock was the daughter of Capt. James Babcock and the younger sister of our James Babcock Jr., whose grandchildren left Rhode Island for upstate New York (Stephen Moulton Babcock of Madison) and Vermont (Havilah Babcock of Neenah), so there would definitely be some correlation in our DNA.

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  3. Sue from Middleton, WiJune 24, 2013 at 4:21 PM

    I loved the description and photos of the tea table and bedroom furnishing..
    D.K. had the same bookcase and Nana the "sewing table" that turned clockwise.
    We were excepted to sit straight up, chew quietly, don't fidget or leave the table without asking permission. They held many parties and when I was about 9 they let me come over and help serve the food dressed as a French maid.. That is how I got to know the Neenah paper barons better.

    Mom had a 12 piece sterling flatware box and some nice china and silver pots, as wedding gifts, and when we ate in our dining room, we were taught which spoon or fork to use, not to fidget or bury something you didn't like under a lettuce leaf or your napkin. She had a woman come to iron Dad's shirts and polish the silver twice a month.
    We also ate in our den on T.V. tables with less fancy accouterments. Thus I
    knew the rules of Etiquette long before I went off to college, which saved me some embarrassment with my new boyfriend Alex,'s family in Lincoln, Ma. They were from the "upper crust", his father's father being the Chief Engineer to the Czar of Russia, and she from the Peabody- Gardiner families of Boston. The only time I really slipped was to take a large teaspoon of sugar in a sterling bowl in front of me, for my breakfast coffee, and quickly finding out it held SALT. I tried to ignore it but it was undrinkable then. She wanted her children to marry those in the East with long pedigrees and lots of money, not us "poor people" from the Mid-West.
    Alex spent a summer in the oil fields of southern Illinois and would ride a motorcycle up to Neenah on Friday nights and leave Sundays. He got a good look at Neenah, and North Shore, and described to his mother that it was the Newport of the Midwest.

    When I got married hardly anyone wanted silver as they didn't want the upkeep. But Aunt Fran gave us a set of 12 sterling pieces so we could do some "fancy"
    entertaining once we had a house.
    Both our girls lived alone before they married so they collected stainless utensils and pottery until Mom died and left a lot of her things to them.
    Sue

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    1. When Patti and I got married we registered for silver, china and crystal. All were very simple patterns, but before the year was out all three had been discontinued. Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty used theirs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but we have friends now who hardly use anything but paper plates. These things were more work, but life was less complicated in other respects back then - someone was always at home, and the house was the center of a family's universe. I suppose we're like water, always seeking our own level.

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