Wednesday, September 26, 2018

More Recollections by Lillian of 19th Century Life in Cooksville

Lillian Graves Smith’s memories of growing up in Cooksville were written down by her son Marlowe G. Smith in an interview in 1973 that he titled “Cooksville Vignettes.”

These may have been, as Smith describes them, "random reminiscences…that relate the simple day to day experiences as seen through the eyes of childhood,” but they are delightfully specific and personal from 25 years of Lillian Graves’ early life in the village. And she lived almost to age 102.

Lillian Graves Smith
Lillian Graves Smith (1875-1977) was the daughter of Anna Brown Graves (1855-1920) and William Gardiner Graves (1825-1903). Her father was a Civil War veteran and a prominent blacksmith in Cooksville with a large family.  They lived in several different houses in the village, which was not uncommon in Cooksville.

Here are more excerpts from Lillian’s recollections:

“My first recollections are concerned with my home and family on the Main Street of Cooksville adjacent to the Badfish Creek, and across the road from Rice’s Mill [the Cooksville Mill, 1842.Ed.] which is no longer standing…The fine old sugar maple trees that were planted by my father are still flourishing, and I recall as a native Vermonter, he always tapped the trees for their maple syrup…

“One of the more haunting experiences was the time that Mrs. Towns took her own life by jumping into the mill pond. Her husband had passed away, and she was left with three children and with little or nothing to live on. She left a note on the table together with her wedding ring, and one dark night she threw herself into the pond and was drowned. We all felt so badly for the children, Annie, Jennie and Bennie. They were such nice children and bore up bravely during this ordeal. The entire neighborhood, perhaps in tardy fashion, felt great compassion for them, and each child was taken by friends and neighbors. I recall that Bennie lived with the Mayo family and was brought up as their own son. He was a very fine young man, and we all admired him.

McCarthy tombstone, St. Michael's Cemetery
“A strange funeral episode is alleged to have occurred, but I cannot substantiate it. The story was widely circulated in Cooksville when a certain Mr. McCarthy passed away. A number of friends and relatives came to the home for a wake, and a number of them imbibed too freely and became highly inebriated. They insisted that the corpse must also celebrate the sad occasion, and Mr. McCarthy’s remains were removed from the casket and two of his friends stood him up against the wall while others poured whiskey down his throat. This all occurred in the dead of winter with two feet of snow on the level. The following morning, the funeral procession of horses and sleighs started on their sad journey from the home to the church for the last rites. The coffin occupied the lead sleigh, and for some unknown reason, the horses became frightened and took off at an unseemly gallop and ran away. The sleigh was tipped over, the casket dumped into the road, the corpse thrown out, and one of the sleigh’s runners ran over the deceased. A number of people were alleged to have witnessed this strange occurrence, but somehow, I always thought that this truth had been more than slightly stretched in the telling.” [It is reported elsewhere that one witness exclaimed, “He would have been killed if he weren’t already dead!” Ed.]

“The Fishers lived in the old house on Main Street now owned by George and Eunice Mattakat, and where they operate an Antique Shop [the Cook House. Ed.] I cannot recall Mr. Fisher who was a carpenter and millwright. We did know Mrs. Fisher some time after her husband passed away. She was left without means and was cared for by the Masonic Order of which her late husband was a member. There were times when Mrs. Fisher probably went hungry, and my Mother would often send me to her home at noon with a good dinner all prepared. I recall that Mrs. Fisher would smack her lips, and could hardly wait until I left before eating her meal. She was always so grateful for these little kindnesses.

The Red Door Antique Shop (the Cook House,  built 1842)
“I taught in Cooksville for one year when the school was so large that it had to be divided, and I had my classes in the basement of the church. I taught for the longest time in the Tupper District between Cooksville and Evansville. Here I could board with my sister, Edith Searles. Even then I had quite a distance to walk to school, and one recalls that the roads were not paved in this days, and during winter, you had to wade through snowdrifts with skirts that dragged on the ground. It was even worse after the spring thaw because the road would be full of holes and mud was everywhere. I usually had someone to build the fires in the schoolhouse during the winter, but occasionally, I had to perform janitor services as well….some of the smaller children would walk a great distance… in sub-zero weather and they would be frost-bitten and chilled to the bone when they arrived. Then they would sit close to the stove to thaw out, and soon chilblains would set in, and the poor youngsters would cry out in pain.

“I usually received the magnificent sum of $20.00 per month during the spring and fall terms, and if lucky, $30.00 per month during the winter term. However, board and room averaged only $2.00 per week, so I did manage to get along somehow. The older boys came to school during the winter term only, as their help was required on the farm in spring and fall. 
Ferris Wheel, Columbian Exposition, 1893
 “The Columbian Exposition and World’s Fair of 1892 attracted well over twenty million people. My sister Edith and husband Riley Searles wanted to attend and they persuaded his brother Willis and wife Jean Searles to go along also. Jean’s sister, Ada Wing, joined the party, and I was urged to accompany them. This was a great event for a little seventeen-year-old Cooksville girl. We arrived there on Chicago Day, and such a crowd of people I had never seen before. We had great difficulty in securing a place to stay, and finally had to settle for one room with double beds in a private home. Edith and I shared one bed while Jean and her sister Ada had the other. Poor Riley and Willis had to sleep on the floor. Even the intense heat and tremendous crowds presented no problems to one who never before visited a large city nor attended so great an exposition. Here I spent much time in the Fine Arts Division and saw at first hand the world famous paintings and art objects from Europe that were loaned to the Exposition. I could scarcely tear myself away from this part of the Fair. In fact, it was all a veritable fairy land of beauty and lights. One of the special features was the newly invented Ferris Wheel, and this was perhaps the largest one ever erected. At the top of the wheel, you were over 300 feet above the ground. Of course, I wanted to have a ride on this new contraption, but the others in the party would have no part of it. Finally, after noting my disappointment, Riley very reluctantly agreed to go up with me. As luck would have it, the mechanism jammed just as we were at the top of the wheel. Riley was already ill from the movement or fear, or both, and was soon fit to be tied during the two hour wait until the problem was remedied. As for myself, I rather enjoyed it, and certainly got my full money’s worth of fantastic views out over Chicago and Lake Michigan.

Anna Graves Witner, a sister of Lillian's
“As I look back from my vantage point of nearly a century, Cooksville seems a veritable oasis compared with present day urban living…. Cooksville people were kind and considerate of others. Some would probably call it “nosey-ness,” but there was a spirit of community and neighborliness. There was integrity and square dealing on the part of almost everyone. For so small an area, it is interesting to reflect that so many of them were people of culture and refinement. Certainly, there was little or no class distinction as I can recall. The Scandinavians came over in large numbers and performed the hard manual labor in the fields, but we respected them for their industry, and of course, later on, not a few of them owned the very farms where they first worked as hired hands. . They very quickly melded into the general population and made a major contribution to the area.

“One looks back to the Founders of Cooksville with genuine gratitude. Here began a tradition that one only hopes extends to the present day.”

[Additional excerpts from Lillian’s “Cooksville Vignettes” are contained in a Cooksville News Blog story dated Dec. 7, 2016.]

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