Last fall a retired teacher friend, a woman very interested in local history, asked me to prepare a talk for some local Questers groups on Cornelia Frances Tallman, the daughter-in-law of a local prominent businessman from the late 1800s. The Tallman House is a local attraction, a lovely brick home on a hill, best known for hosting Abraham Lincoln for a couple of nights when he was campaigning for President. Nellie was the last person to live in the house before it was shut up in 1913 for decades. Eventually one of the Tallman descendents donated the property to the city, with the stipulation it be used as a museum, and since then the Rock County Historical Society has been refurbishing it and hosting events and tours in the building.
So, I read everything I could find on the Tallman family, and Nellie in particular. There was a fine book written by the late Julia Horbostel, who read all Nellie's diaries and scoured newspaper archives and the Tallman papers. Then I also read as much as I could about Janesville from the 1850s until 1924, when Nellie died. I was fascinated by local newspaper archives, available online. I knew some of the Questers would have read Horbostel's book, so I wanted to include events and details the book didn't cover.
It took all winter. I made a card file, a sort of timeline, of events relating to the Tallmans, to Janesville history, and US history. I looked at old postcards, and historic photographs. I found vintage magazines of the era, and tried to make sense of what her life must have been like. Then I aimed to create a first person account that would keep people awake in a program scheduled for right after lunch. I reckoned that a half hour was the upper limit, so once I wrote the original draft, I kept timing and editing it down to thirty minutes.
The program was held in the parlor of the old Tallman mansion, and I enjoyed showing up in costume and having the paintings and furniture all around. People seemed interested, and had all sorts of questions and comments, which was good. It was also helpful that a retired director of the Historical Society attended the program, because he also had stories to tell.
Here's my script. I put it in a small leatherette journal, similar to the diaries that Nellie kept.
We’ve had some excitement, haven’t we? Did you see the glow in the sky last night? The power is back on, which is an improvement. The city turned off the electricity during the fire on the Milwaukee Street bridge last night. Such a terrible loss! - Archie Reid’s store, the candy store, Brown shoes, Amos Rehberg’s place and the dry goods store - all gone. We can be grateful that nobody was killed! No more arguing about repairing the rotting bridge deck; the entire thing will have to be replaced now. The newspaper says divers are searching for Archie Reid’s safe, which apparently is at the bottom of the Rock River. Retrieving that will be challenge, with the water up so high and running so fast. What awful weather we’ve had this spring!
How long has it been since those terrible fires in Chicago, and Peshtigo? Eighteen seventy-one - more than forty years ago. Remember how we sent food and clothing to help people who lost everything in the fires? That wasn’t long after my sister Ella married Charles Cory and moved to Chicago, then they lost their baby son. Sad to remember.
Time has gotten away from me today. I’m up to my eyes in organizing and packing, and getting ready for my move. We’re in the middle of selling some of this furniture and the Turkey rugs.
What is all this? I’ve been going through my things, books, photographs, letters, postcards, newspaper clippings. Here’s a recipe - scalloped oysters.
Toast several slices of bread quite brown, and butter them - on both sides. Take a baking dish and put the toast around the sides instead of a crust. Pour your oysters into the dish and season to your taste with butter, pepper and salt, add some mace or cloves if you like. Crumb some bread on top of the oysters and bake with quick heat about fifteen minutes.
It’s not too late for oysters is it? They should be good for another month, I think.
When Ed and I were first married, after we had come home from Washington and moved in here with his parents, We used to have them shipped in from Chicago by train, and on Sunday nights when Eliza was off, we’d sit down for a treat.
What else? Here’s one for graham bread, one for grape wine. Snowball pudding - fussy, but so good!
We had help, of course. Eliza was a fine cook for fifteen years, and later Mollie, and young Anna. But those girls had their own lives; sometimes they were sick, or they went off and got married. But I liked being a good housewife. I could cook, and sew, and clean.
A lifetime of things. They accumulate. Yet they are so hard to dispose of!
This house is too big for one person, especially a seventy-four year old lady. Too hard to heat. Too old fashioned. Too much work.
It won’t be long until Stanley and Mabel’s new house is finished, then I will move in with them. Charlie and May planning to build too, right next door. I expect both houses will be large enough for families and guests - and grandmas. Both Stanley and Charles have engaged Mr. Kemp as architect. Mr. Kemp has designed many churches and business, and private homes, here and in Beloit and Stoughton.
So - I will live with my sons, just as Ed and I lived with Mr. and Mrs. Tallman. William and Emeline lived here until they died, and later on my parents lived here with us in their last days.
That’s how life is, isn’t it? One generation lives its life - every joy and sorrow. Then they move on, and the next generation takes their place and it begins over again.
All these photos! Here’s Pa; I can’t seems to find one of Ma. I miss them every day.
It’s 1913 now, so Pa’s been gone, let me see - 24 years. And Ma died in 1899, so she has been gone almost 14 years. It seems impossible that people we love so much, who we remember so clearly - can pass out of our lives. But of course they do.
Here’s Pa’s notice from the Daily Gazette:
May 15, 1889
"DEATH OF HON. OTIS W. NORTON
Rock County's Representative in the Earliest Wisconsin Legislatures
The End Comes at Three O'clock This Morning After Prolonged Illness
The life of one of the earliest pioneers of Rock county ended at three o'clock this morning by the death of Hon. Otis W. Norton, at the residence of his son-in-law, Mr. E.D. Tallman, North Jackson street.
Besides his wife, Mr. Norton leaves a family of five children; Mrs. H.D. Ewer of Milwaukee; Mrs. E.D. Tallman of this city; Mrs. Spencer Eldredge of Dwight, Illinois; Mrs. Charles D. Cory of St. Johns, New Brunswick; Mr. George O. Norton, agent of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway in Pueblo, Colorado.
All the family will be present on Friday afternoon a 1 o'clock, except Mrs. Cory, who is unable to attend on account of her recent severe attack of pneumonia."
Our family had another sister, Charlotte, but she died in 1849, the year the Wisconsin Territory joined the union, while Pa was serving in the state senate.
Pa, like many New Englanders, saw opportunity in the West, and in 1841 my parents packed up all of us - except Ella - who wasn’t yet born - and we traveled to Milton, and Pa built a us cabin. In a few years we moved to Janesville, and Pa began doing what he did so well, seeking opportunity, and helping the young city grow. He helped organize and was president of the Central Bank of Wisconsin. He invested in railroads, and bought and sold grain, both here and in Illinois. He also was a founding member of the Congregational church. He used to tell a story about how he came to be involved in church affairs:
In 1843 a man died in here Janesville, and was about to be carried to burial without any ceremony of any kind, and just at this moment Pa came riding along on horseback. A young lawyer came up to him with a startling question - “Sir, can you pray?” Pa replied that he used to something of that kind when he was in the East, but having been some five years in the West, he was out of practice. The young lawyer, who turned out to E.V. Whiton, later a Justice of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, urged Pa to attend the funeral, if he could, the reason being he had been all over Janesville and could not find a man woman or child who could, or would, pray, and being a New England man himself, did not like to see a man buried without religious ceremony. Pa’s efforts apparently were satisfactory.
We Nortons were close - even after we all married, scattered off in every direction. It’s a tribute to our parents, I think. George is gone now, and it’s hard for me to go visiting off to Milwaukee, or Illinois. And Ella is so far away, but we still write to one another.
I haven’t really thought back like this in years. It must be all this sorting of mementos. What are these, calling cards! Look - my school autograph album. Remember what you wrote?
May Earth be lovely where you tread
Its flowers be bright, its thorns be few,
May age rest lightly on thy head,
And joys forever new.
This reminds me of when I was sent back to New York to attend school. The Phipps Union Female Academy - for “All branches of useful and ornamental education.” That was 1858 - a whole year before Mr. Lincoln campaigned here, and spent two nights with the Tallmans in their new house.
I got along at Phipps Academy, but I missed my Janesville friends, especially Edgar’s sister Gussie. What good times we had before we were married! I was sure Gussie would marry Lucien Hanks, even if Lucien was her mother’s nephew, but she didn’t. She ended up marrying John Beach instead. Lucien ended up marrying Sybil Perkins - they are still my friends. Dear Lucien, who is famous, or perhaps infamous, for not being able to stick out the night with Honest Abe in the upstairs bedroom.
Oh, we girls had fun. Sometimes we took the train to Chicago where the shopping was better than here. We skated in winter, took long walks spring, summer and fall, and gossiped year round, and we loved to sew the latest fashions together. I think she approved of me marrying her brother, because then we became more than friends, we became sisters. For a little while.
Actually Edgar and I married, before Gussie and John did. I had known Edgar and his family for ages. Our parents knew each other from business affairs and from church. Ed was three years older than I was. He was four year younger than his brother William, and a year older than Gussie. They’re all gone now, Edgar, William, and Gussie. Though William’s wife Maggie still lives on Academy Street.
Are you still comfortable? Need anything? I seem to be rambling, skipping from thing to thing.
I was talking about - what? - getting married. We weren’t married here in Janesville, you know. Mr. Lincoln was elected, and Ed was appointed to a job in the treasury in Washington D.C. The war was raging, soldiers everywhere, the Capitol dome not yet finished when I joined Edgar in Washington. We were married there December 12, 1861. It was exciting to be in the nation’s capitol, exciting, and terrible. We were back in Janesville before General Lee surrendered, back before President Lincoln’s death, back here and living here with Ed’s parents, and Gussie.
You know, as lovely as this house is, and as spacious, none of the family was married here. Ed’s parents were married back East, long before this house was built in 1857. We were married in Washington. Ed’s brother William married Maggie in New York. Gussie and John were married in Chicago, and even the boys were married out of town.
Only one wedding here. That was for May Dimock and Victor Richardson. May was related to Mrs. Tallman, who had been a Dexter. Mrs. Tallman’s sister Mary married Colonel Hanks, Lucien’s father, and May’s mother, Emma, was their daughter. When Emma, died, I thought it was the least I could to offer our home for her daughter’s wedding. Especially since I never had a daughter of my own.
May was lovely bride. She wore white corded silk, trimmed in lace that had been part of her grandmother’s wedding dress. The parlor was beautiful, the alter covered in fresh flowers, and lighted candles. We hosted refreshments afterward as well, including a fruit cake that Eliza and I baked. That was a happy day. Victor and May’s three daughters are turning into fine young women.
I adore children, but Edgar and I were childless for thirteen years. It was difficult, seeing my friends beginning their families, and us not having a baby of our own for so long. Once, almost...
Edgar’s parents were eager for us to start a family, although William and Maggie already had Willie, so there already was a first grandson. When our Stanley finally arrived in July of 1874, I was thirty-five. Life was suddenly very different. Stanley was a dear child, and we were lucky to live here in this comfortable home, with Grandma and Grandpa Tallman always ready to give help and love.
And then three years later, in 1877, the year after my parents moved to Illinois, our second son, Charlie - Charles Edward - was born. Don’t let anyone tell you that two children are as easy as one! Two children are a handful. Two hands full.
Eighteen seventy-seven. A year of joy and then sorrow. That was the year we lost Gussie. John brought her back to Janesville, and we buried her at Oak Hill.
Then less than a year later, Ed’s father died, on May 13th. We no sooner had taken him to his final rest than Mrs. Tallman joined her husband, on June 13th. Both of the funerals were held here, in this house. We all dressed in black, even the boys.
So much change, so quickly! Three family deaths in succession might have overwhelmed us, but two small children refocused our attention on their needs.
And suddenly we were the older generation; we were running this grand house. Mr. Tallman had considered selling the place, perhaps moving back East, or traveling abroad, but he never did. So now we were the ones taking care of maintenance, hiring the help that came and went. So much to do! Besides arranging for women to help with cooking, cleaning and laundry, we had to hire men to work the garden, care for the horse and sometimes the cow, deliver coal, shovel the driveway, and keep the plumbing in working order. I will never forget winter when the pipes froze and burst, wreaking havoc on our wallpaper and plaster.
It wasn’t all work, certainly. Mr. and Mrs. Tallman had chosen to live quiet lives, and rarely entertained, but now we had free reign to hold events here at the house. We hosted card parties - we both played cards often - and suppers, and luncheons. I had the Pocahantas Archery Club here at the house.
Remember coffee I hosted for my lady friends right before Christmas that first year after William and Emeline were gone? Coffees were fashionable thing that year. Fifty ladies arrived by carriage at 5:00 p.m. Anderson’s orchestra played upstairs, all seated around the elliptical opening in the hallway, so the music made a pleasant background for our happy chatter. Lizzy was here from Milwaukee, and Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Bostwick, Mrs. Pease, Mrs. Richardson, Mrs. Atwood, and Mrs. Wright, and you, all my friends from all over town. Such a lovely evening..
You recall those happy years, don’t you? By the 80’s the boys were in grade school and didn’t need such constant attention, so it became much easier for us to entertain. The largest party we hosted was in 1883, in January, when the weather can be so cold and dreary. We invited over two hundred people to the house, and had the Shurtleff’s cater the refreshments.
And certainly we didn’t host every event. We played cards at other people’s homes here and in Beloit, to charity balls, to Burns Night festivities in February, Watch Night get togethers for New Years Eve, and meetings of the Old Settlers Club. I particularly remember a Dickens Ball. I attended with my father who was back in town by then, and I dressed up as Mrs. Lupin from Martin Chuzzlewit. Everyone dressed up as characters from Dickens! All those David Copperfields and Miss Havishams, Fezziwigs and Scrooges.
Of course the 80’s weren’t easy. The entire country was in an economic slump, businesses suffered, and local people were out of work. William closed the Tallman laboratory and factory, so Ed wasn’t working for his brother any more, though he was involved in Tallman real estate affairs and investments.
It was about then that Dr. Palmer opened the first city hospital in a rented house on Sutherland Street. Remember? Of course back then hospitals were really only for people without families to care for them, or who could not afford to be cared for at home. Some neighbors on Sutherland were not enthused about having a hospital in the neighborhood - they feared the hospital would bring down their property values. But remember how we campaigned for the hospital, and worked to supply it?
When I look back, I remember those years with some happiness and pride. I was busy with the boys, and even though my parents’ health was beginning to fail, I decided to become more involved in community affairs.
Around 1886, I began attending meetings of the Associated Charities. Janesville had about 10,000 people by then, and had its share of poverty and suffering. Many of the poor worked hard to feed their families. They fished in the river, hunted in nearby woods and fields, and raised vegetables in unused plots of land. Widow Kinney, who lived near the railroad depot, used to fatten hogs to sell in order to keep herself together during the winter. And she wasn’t the only one with livestock. People often kept cows in town; even we occasionally rented a milk cow. Sometimes they caused problems, especially when they roamed loose and wandered into other people’s gardens, but people had to eat and drink!
But the larger problem was providing enough jobs. Janesville was a magnet for rural mothers and daughters of poor families, and widows and abandoned wives, who came looking jobs working as domestic help, or as servants, or waitresses, or maids, seamstresses or washerwomen. They worked in the mills, too. There were factory jobs for men and jobs as day laborers. But even so, for a variety of reasons, some families found themselves in dire straits.
We felt that it was our Christian duty to relieve suffering, if we could. Certainly the churches, lodges, and city officials provided help, but we believed there could be a civic group whose sole mission it was to help the poor. A coalition of around a hundred businessmen and their wives, including myself, decided to organize to address the issue of poverty in Janesville.
So, Associated Charities was formed, and elected officers, and the mayor’s wife was elected the first president. Members paid $2.00 annual dues, and welcomed representatives from all the churches, societies and public agencies. We hoped to eliminate most duplication of charitable efforts, and to do a thorough job of discovering and alleviating need. We divided the city into districts, and people volunteered to be friendly visitors who discovered and reported families in distress, and coordinated efforts to help them.
I was responsible for the First Ward, and besides doing home visits, went to dozens of meetings, I visited families, repeatedly. Remember Mary Welch, so ill, and her young son with his crushed foot? The council sent me to Fr. Roche at St. Mary’s to get his assistance, and we paid Mrs. Weaver to deliver meals to the family. And then there was the Lightfoot family, who needed clothing and bedding for all the children. Coal for Mrs.Fitzpatrick. Groceries for a colored family. So much need, even in the First Ward.
It wasn’t, and still is not, easy, to allocate limited resources to the most deserving, to distinguish between the unemployed and the habitually idle, or those who waste their pay on strong drink. Sometimes the job feels overwhelming, but I felt then, and still feel, that my energies spent in this effort are not wasted.
And certainly doing charitable work helped me get through some dark days. In 1893 I lost Pa, a man who lived a life of charity, and who never missed an opportunity to visit the sick. Both he and Ma moved in with us, where I could care for him, but finally his heart, which had been so large, ceased to beat.
And then other members of the older generation began to fall away, our old friend Mrs. Dimock, for example. Dr. Palmer died in 1895, and his first hospital closed. Eliza’s arthritis worsened, so she left service, and we had to hire a whole series of new girls to help in the house.
Then the hardest blow of all. On August 18th of 1896, I lost my dear Edgar. We went to bed as usual, and in the morning he simply failed to wake up. The doctor said his death was the result of “A giving away of the tissues of the heart.” I was glad that Lizzie was here, and that both boys were home. Once more the house, Edgar’s home for forty years, was draped in black. All our friends and Edgar’s business associates came to the house for the service, and William and his family, and they all spoke of Ed’s kindness, and of his honesty. Mr. Bostwick, Mr. McElroy, and and Mr. Van Kirk were among the pallbearers. Friends and family, they were what made it possible for me to continue.
Then three years later, Ma passed away. She was ninety-one years old. Another funeral in the old house. That was the year I turned sixty.
But even though I was no longer a wife or a daughter, it was not the end of being a mother, or a friend, or of being useful. Through those difficult years in in the 90s, my boys, my friends, and my work with Associated Charities kept me going.
I wouldn’t be honest if I said that losing people I loved wasn’t hard, but it does not help to dwell on what one cannot change. I find that what does help to to focus on the present, most of the time, and look to the future.
The city is growing and changing. Just look at the new jail, and the new Carnegie library, all built in the last ten years. The Sisters of Mercy have bought Dr. Palmer’s old hospital and are making that into a first class institution. It looks as though automobiles are going to be very popular, and we’re actually building them here in the city, though I cannot see how they will ever replace horses, the railroad or even streetcars. Stanley and Charles are mad for automobiles - they have taken the train down to Chicago to automobile shows more than once.
My boys have grown into fine men. Stanley graduated from the University of Wisconsin, and was admitted to the Bar in 1901. He married Mabel Walker, from Racine, two years ago, in Chicago. He has always been active - he loves bicycling and golfing, and I know that he and Mabel enjoy entertaining and have many friends. Stanley helped organize the new Country Club, and he and Mabel socialize with many of the members.
Charlie, even though he is younger, actually married before Stanley did. He and May Felton were wed six years ago. Charles is also a competitive bicyclist, and he and May enjoy getaways to Hoard’s resort on Lake Koshkonong. He is working his way up in the telephone company, (I am still getting accustomed to using the telephone, but it is the future, Charles assures me) and I am thrilled to say that he and May are going to make me a grandmother this summer. That certainly is something to look forward to!
I am still close to my sisters. After Stanley and Mabel’s wedding, they all came for extended visits to get to know Mabel better, which made me very happy.
Well, it’s getting late. Talking is not packing, and I still have much to do before I can leave this house, my home for so long, and begin the newest chapter of my life. And I’m sure you have things that need your attention.
Thank you for visiting, and listening so patiently. I hope I haven’t bored you, though I know you would never admit it, even if I did. Once I get settled in my new situation, we will get together again.
May Earth be lovely where you tread
Its flowers be bright, its thorns be few,
May age rest lightly on thy head,
And joys forever new.