The old Rock County Courthouse, now demolished, in Janesville
Janesville's most famous landmark is certainly the Tallman House. This year, the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth has shined a spotlight on the property because the then future President stayed overnight with the well-connected Tallman family. The city owns the house now, and the Rock County Historical Society manages it. This book is a treasure trove of information about the Tallman family in general, and Nellie Tallman in particular.
On Saturday, October 10th, the RCHS will host an event highlighting her life, and the lives of several other prominent Rock county men and women at the annual cemetery tour. For several years I have enjoyed portraying Nellie and telling the story of her life. The old part of the cemetery where she and her family rest is lovely, high on a hill overlooking the city and surrounding countryside. You can see the Tallman house in the distance from that vantage point. This weekend it looks like it will be chilly, but I hope people decide to come out to see the place and hear about some local history. The event runs from 1-3 in the afternoon at Oakhill Cemetery.
This is the script I use to tell people about this "good and caring woman."
Isn’t it lovely here? I always thought Oakhill was a beautiful place. During my eighty-six years I came here often - to tend plots, place flowers, and remember my loved ones. We would sometimes come to the cemetery for quiet picnics among the graves. My name is Cornelia Norton Tallman; but call me Nellie. Everyone did. I don’t belong among the worthy citizens who have already spoken to you, because I never made any notable contributions. I am remembered mostly because I married a man who lived in a stately home which became a local landmark. Beyond that, my life was ordinary. I was a daughter, a wife, a mother and a woman who cared about other people, and who did what she could to ease other people's suffering.
My husband, Edgar Tallman, and I had a great deal in common. We were both born in New York and moved to Wisconsin as children. We came from upper middle-class families and both had fathers who were successful and public-spirited. Growing up, we lived near one another, attended the same church. Edgar’s sister, Gussie, was omy best friend. So it wasn’t surprising that we were married in 1861, I was twenty-two, and he was twenty-five.
We wed in Washington DC, while Edgar was working for the war effort. But when the Civil War ended, we moved to Janesville, into his family’s home, the Tallman House. Edgar’s parents, his sister Gussie, Edgar and I all lived happily together. I lived in the beautiful house for the next forty years. It was built in the 1850s, and was one of the grandest homes in the Midwest, costing $42,000 to build, well over $1.5 million today.
My life in Janesvsille was very comforable. I had no children until I was thirty-five, so I had few responsibilities at first. Since we lived with my mother and father-in-law, I didn’t have housekeeping duties. I had time for social activities. I liked to go for walks or carriage rides, even when the weather was cold. I often visited friends in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago; the trains ran often. I had one chore, sewing. Ready-made clothing for ladies was not available, so all of it had to made by hand. I was fortunate - I had a sewing machine, a new invention. And I loved to sew. I remember I that I looked forward to Sunday evenings, because Edgar and I sometimes dined on oysters. They were very popular, available delivered by refrigerated railroad cars. Another treat I enjoyed was ice cream, though I blush to admit that sometimes I ate so much I made myself ill.
But please don’t think that I was concerned only with my own comfort. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire claimed the home of my sister, Ella. She and her family were safe, but eight other women and I sewed for weeks to provide them with new clothes and linens. There was another fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, far more devastating, on the same day as the Chicago Fire. We sent those poor people meat and bread, along with our prayers.
In 1874 my life changed. I gave birth to my son Stanley. I was thirty-five. Dealing with new motherhood, my in-laws, a large house and servants became the main focus of my life. I remember Mr. Tallman teaching the baby to spit into a brass spittoon, which nearly everyone thought was cute.
Two years later my younger Charles was born, and not long afterward the senior Tallmans died within a month of each other. Now I had two young boys to raise and a household to run on my own. One big job was housecleaning. We did a major cleaning in April and again in October. Roads were unpaved then, and both mud and wind-blown dust made a thorough cleaning necessary. In summer we hired a man to bring his water wagon and sprinkle the streets around the house to try and settle the dust that blew in through the windows.
I was busy , but I found time to help others. Once the boys started school, I joined the Janesville Associated Charities, and I worked with them for over thirty years. In the 1880s there was a serious national economic depression, and Janesville had its share of poor people. The Associated Charities furnished food, clothing, and fuel, to the needy. I was responsible for several families and individuals, whom I would call on throughout the year. I tried to help them with their daily needs, and I also tried to help each of them to be self-sufficeient. For example, I gave Mrs. Cullen used furniture and linens so she could open a boarding house. I remember once I purchased a clock for a family so they could get to work on time. But not everyone appreciated my efforts. I sent a stove and a bed to Mrs. Repnow. But she didn’t like the stove, and she said the bed had bugs - so she chopped it up for kindling.
I also was involved in organizing the new city hospital. At that time, most people were cared for at home, and hospitals were mostly for people who lived in unhealthy settings, or who had no one to care for them. This hospital opened in 1880 as a temporary haven for the ailing poor. Even though it was sorely needed, the neighbors had to be reassured that the hospital would not lower their property values.
In addition to my charity work, I loved socializing. Now that the older Tallmans were gone, Edgar and I entertained more. We loved to give card parties, and we attended community functions as well. I remember a costume party where we all dressed as Dickens characters. I came as Mrs. Lupin, from Martin Chuzzlewit. You could not find a Dickens book at the library the week before that party. It was a great success; hundreds of people attended.
I found it very satisfying to watch my sons grow into men. Stanley went to college and became a lawyer. Charles stayed in Janesville and worked for the telephone company. My parents moved in with us in 1889. I loved them very much, and my mother lived with us until she died. She was ninety-one years old. Sadly, my husband Edgar did not have such a long life. He died when he was only sixty-one. I lived as a widow for almost thirty years.
But, as I said, I enjoyed my children. Both Stanley and Charlie were bicycle enthusiasts. They rode those big-wheeled bikes. They began as teenagers, but they raced well into their adult years. Stanley was also a golfer. In 1910, at the state tournament, he was knocked senseless when he was hit in the head by an golf ball. Perhaps that is one reason he decided to found a local course, the Janesville Country Club. Perhaps you’ve seen it?
Both my boys married. Charlie married Dr. Palmer’s granddaughter, May Felton. May was a nurse at the Palmer Memorial Hospital. She was a great favorite of mine. Stanley married too, and all five of us lived happily together in the Tallman house until 1915.
Then both boys built their own houses next door. Stanley’s house even had a thermostat! I had lived in the original house for almost forty years, but then we closed it up, and I took turns living with each of my sons. My daughters-in-law were good women, and I enjoyed sharing their homes and baby-sitting for my grandchildren. My final years with them were pleasant ones.
I lived a long time, almost eighty-six years, and I saw the world change. My life spanned Civil War to the Roaring Twenties. I was alive to use the first telephones, and to have electricity. I rode in automobiles, though I never owned one. I listened to music on my Victrola, and I saw moving pictures. I enjoyed the convenience of an electric carpet sweeper, and I voted in the 1915 election. It was a good life, even if I had the misfortune to outlive my son Stanley, who died in 1922, when he was only forty-eight. I passed away in 1924.
My life was marked by hard work, good times, and dedication to family and the welfare of others. My loving family and many good friends were my greatest treasures. And now, in death, I rest among the people who meant so much to me.