Rock County, Wisconsin

"My Grandmother's Story"


By Nettie [Thomson] Lohry; Courtesy of Scott Thomson

    [Parenthetical remarks ending in "V.B.G." were added by the wife of one of Louisa Thomson Wylie's grandsons.]

    As little girl, I used to listen by the hour to my grandmother's stories
    of her life. Many times I used to tell her, "The events of your life would make an interesting book, Grandma."
    Now that she has been dead for many years, the stories still seem
    so fresh in my mind. I think I shall tell it in her own words, as she told it so often to me.
    I was born in a little town in Northern England, Sunderland, near
    Newcastle, not very far from the sea. My mother was a descendant of one of England's earlier kings by a secret marriage, and was a sweet, sad woman of the old school. She taught my sisters and me to sew and cook while we were still very young.
    When she married my father the change was so great she almost
    went into seclusion. She had trunks full of beautiful clothes she never wore. As time went on she made them into dresses for my sisters and me.
    My father was a doctor, and Mother was his third wife. It was said
    of him that he was twice widowed and thrice married on his 33rd birthday. Each wife had a fortune, which, with his own. he managed to squander. He spent one touring America, and I can distinctly remember, as a child, passing a house where he was said to have gambled away an entire fortune in a single night.
    But I had a happy, pleasant childhood. We had a large, lovely home,
    with as many as three servants most of the time. It was a merry part of old England, and from where we lived we could see seven large castles. We were a large family; most of my brothers were engaged in ship work - one was a captain.
    As I grew older I was very popular with the young folk and always
    had plenty of young men to wait on me. One, especially, seemed very much in love with me, and though I liked him, I thought it time to discourage his ardent affection.
    I planned for days just what I would say that would not offend turn.
    After doing so, imagine the shock I got when he threw back his head saying, "Oh well, there are just as good fish in the sea as have ever been caught!"
    But among my admirers were two young men by the same name,
    John Thomson - one the son of a rich English brewer, the other a young tailor from Scotland. The better I knew them the more my heart went out to the struggling young tailor, and the more my friends and my family leaned towards the rich man's son. I guess my mother's thoughts turned back to her better days, and she knew I could have everything I wanted if I married the other John.
    One night John unfolded his plans to me: "Louisa," he said, "let's
    get married and go to America, where I can start a little shop of my own, and with you to work for, how happy we will be." Oh, he painted such a rosy picture, but the fact that I loved and wanted to go where he went was all that mattered to me.
    So we were married by the rector at the little church one morning,
    and from there we went to my sister's home where I had been staying. We had been there only a few minutes when the Postman passed. It was the custom to call the name of those receiving mail at that time. He called my name and I went to receive a letter from the other John, asking when he could come for me.
    Mother went to the station with me, and just before the train left
    she said, "Louisa you have made me a lot of trouble." And I answered, "Mother, no matter what happens to me in America, no matter what trouble I have, I will never let you know."
    I wonder if I had known all the hardships and all the heartaches the
    New World would hold for me - I wonder if I would still have gone. I wonder....but I think I would.
    But oh, John was so wonderful! So kind, so loving, and so bonnie! I
    was very small but I had lovely clothes and I just naturally bubbled over with wit and fun. We made friends on the boat. John was a good violinist and he could sing the old Scottish songs with such feeling that tears would come to the eyes of the listeners. We would gather in the ship's saloon for the music and dancing. It took six weeks to cross at that time. We had a dreadful storm at sea. All the men were called on deck to bail.
    A relative of John's who crossed on the same boat, borrowed most
    of the money we had saved to start our new home and shop. Needless to say it was never returned, nor did we ever see him again, as he went further west.
    On reaching New York, we went directly to Chicago (1855). There
    we found a few rooms and for some time used one of our trunks for a table, but we were so young and happy, we made a lark of it.
    John soon found work in a tailor's shop, and I was lucky to get a
    place to work in a millinery shop. In those days, a great deal of ruching was used, and of course it was all made by hand. Many times I was thankful my fine mother had taught me to be a fine seamstress.
    Then I found there would later be three of us instead of two to care
    for. Mrs. Anderson, the owner of the shop, who worked with the rest of us, proved to be in the same condition as myself. We wore hoop skirts at that time which helped a lot.
    But as time went on I begged Mrs. Anderson to let me go, but she
    would say, "You are so little and dainty, no one will notice you!" Even after I stopped going to the shop they would send me work to do at home.
    When my time came it was terrible. I asked them to take an axe and
    kill me, but when it was over I had a dear little baby boy and everything was all right. I guess there never was a more proud father than was John!
    As soon as I was able, I took Jimsy in my arms and went to see
    Mrs. Anderson. Oh how proud I was! As I neared her home, I met some friends and I told them my errand. Imagine my shock to learn that she was dead! How different were my thoughts as I returned home.
    While Jimsy was still a baby, the family below us had a siege of
    typhoid fever and I contracted it, but managed to pull through it, but I was sick a long time, and it seemed an endless time before I felt like myself. I was so thankful that John and the baby escaped it.
    About this time John decided to start a business of his own. We went
    to Janesville, a small town in Wisconsin, where he established a small shop. At this time men wore gay coloured vests made of velvet. One of John's customers was Ole Bull, the world-renowned violinist. It is needless to say I was a great help to him, as it was all handwork in those days. Some day I plan to make a quilt from the beautiful pieces I have saved. (Note: This quilt was made up as she planned, and included a piece of this yellow velvet vest they had made for Ole Bull; it is now in possession of her great-granddaughter, Mrs. Margaret Wilson Davis of Grand Rapids, Mich. This piece from Ole Bull's vest has been replaced and each of the granddaughters has a bit of it. V.B.G.)
    John soon became very popular with his Scotch people in and near
    our town. His violin (which is now a treasured possession of Ronald L. Gardiner of Cambridge, New Zealand) was lying on the table in John's shop when Ole Bull was waiting. He picked it up and after playing on it asked permission to use it on his continued playing tour of the U.S.A. (It had been bought in Scotland as second-hand, long before they left for America. V.B.G.)
    His violin and singing were much sought after and many evenings I
    sat alone with the children, for two little girls had been added to our home. (Carrie, who died from black diptheria at about 18 years of age, and Louisa, who later became Mrs. William F. Gardiner Sr. V.B.G.)
    One night John decided he would not go out, no matter what
    happened, but as usual they came for him. I told them they couldn't have him as he had gone to bed, but even that did not stop them, for they went into the room and simply carried him out.
    But these Scotch people were not his only admirers; his three
    children loved to hear him play and sing. Their favorite was "My Old Dog Tray." Stephen Foster's songs were beginning to sweep the country by this time and added a variety to his popular Highland songs.
    About this time the Civil War broke out and I was in constant fear
    that he would be called, but I was spared that. A young friend, a bonnie Scotch lassie, Janet Gardiner, used to stay with the children while John and I went out occasionally together. She used to joke, when teased about getting married, that her man was in the war.
    It was all in fun, but later on she did marry a young English boy who
    had served in the war. They had two fine sons, one to be a doctor in their home town, New Hampton, Iowa, but this is getting ahead of my story.
    One of the happy events of our lives was the Robert Burns Festival.
    John had brought his own Highland uniform from Scotland, and he made one for Jimsy, complete, just like a man's. What a hit it made at the Scotch ball, as he was only five.
    John's shop was in the front of the flat where we lived. In the door
    between our living room and the shop, we had a small peephole so I could look in, and if he was alone I would slip in and help.
    One time I looked and saw an odd-looking farmer. Later, I joked
    with John about this man and remarked, "He would suit me better if he would cut his hair." He replied that I should not make fun of his old Scotch friend as he was a good customer. Little did I know the big part he would play in my life.
    We had moved from place to place, and finally decided to build a
    small cottage for ourselves, on Glenn Street (in Janesville). It was almost completed, and as I was expecting our fourth child in a few months, we were anxious to get settled in our new home.
    On Sunday morning, we were planning to move a few things,
    including a stove, when a friend came in. In the course of the conversation, he suggested that John take him to see the new house. I did not want him to go, and suggested he come for dinner with us the following Sunday - in our new home. But they went away. When the visitor turned his back, John winked at me and looked at the stove.
    A few hours later a friend called. One look at his face told me
    something dreadful had happened, and it was all too true! A river flowed through our town (made famous by the Indian Chief Blackhawk). Some of the young men had persuaded John to go boating. The boat was upset, and as John could not swim, he (only) drowned. They found his body near the shore, on his hands and knees.
    They brought him home that night. Why did this have to happen to
    my John and to me? He was only 28 years old and was so full of life and health and fun, and was so needed by his little family!
    All that night the neighbors and friends stayed with me - as they did
    for some time - doing everything possible to help. But oh, how alone I felt - no one of my own except the three little children, the eldest just six years old.
    This was brought home to me more forcefully after the funeral, for,
    as everyone knows who has been through it, that is the time when it seems too heavy to bear. How I longed for my mother, but true to my word I never let her know.
    One night when I thought the little ones were all asleep, and I was
    sitting alone in the summer twilight, my grief and loneliness seemed more than I could stand. Not much more than a girl with my three little ones, and another coming so soon; even God seemed so far away!
    Suddenly, I felt two little arms around my neck, and a small voice
    said, "Don't cry Mommy, you've still got Jimsy." Yes, I still had Jimsy, and I knew I must go on. And somehow I did, and six weeks later another little boy - John Thomson - was born, making a perfect family, two boys and two girls.
    (Note: The last payment on the new house had been paid and they
    had one silver dollar left. She always wore this on a tiny chain around her neck after his death. V.B.G. [A later correction states that this was a five-dollar gold piece, coined in 1856; it was later given to James Thomson, and he put it in a fob.])
    I struggled on as best I could, taking in washing and sewing, but I
    could see I was not doing justice by the children. The Civil War was at its height and the Union soldiers were training near our home.
    I was constantly worried about Jimsy. He would run away from
    school to this camp, where the soldiers made much of him. They would even let him march with them. (This was called Camp Tredway, located in the area where the Janesville 4-H fairgrounds now stand.)
    Then the old Scotchman - Robert Wylie - whom I had laughed at,
    wanted to marry me and take me out to his farm to live. For myself I did not care, for my heart still belonged to John, but what of the children? Perhaps this would be best for them, so I took his offer.
    The picture he had painted of his country home was much over-
    drawn, but he did have a fine farm in a nice neighborhood. He took a fancy to the baby and wanted to adopt him and give him his name, but I had already named him after his father and would not allow it.
    Little Jimsy started out alone to school. The brave little man had to
    go nearly two miles. The shortest way was by an old Blackhawk trail that had been cut through timber. As the younger ones grew old enough he would take them proudly by the hand - taking his place as their protector.
    The years wore on with hard work and a never-ending hope for their
    future welfare. They grew up to be a fine heathy group of young people - all except Carrie, the oldest girl, who never seemed as strong as the others. She was sweet and cheerful, and my constant companion. When she was about 17, she was ill a long time, but I guess I wanted her so much she did get better and got to be her old self again.
    By this time, I had managed to send Jimsy to a small but excellent
    college (Milton) not far from home, for a year, and he had gone West with some neighbor boys. They drove overland in lumber wagons.
    Louise finished country school and she, too, went to Milton College.
    When Carrie was about 18, and the picture of health again, she was stricken down with black diptheria! Louisa was away at the college and I was alone to care for her and the home.
    I nursed her day and night for six weeks. I never undressed except
    for changing clothing. Even when I wouldn't give up she would say, "Mother, you still have Louisa and the boys." But to me it seemed she meant more than anything, and I prayed that God would spare her. But it was not to be, for she left me on a lovely autumn day in November, when the trees are so beautiful.
    Only a mother knows what I went through. Somehow I had to get
    back to washing dishes, feeding chickens, and the hundred things every housewife must do. And I must work to keep Louisa in school. Later I was to know the thrill of pride every mother knows when her daughter graduates with honours. She was so sweet and the picture of health.
    Of course she had what we called in those days, a first-grade
    certificate and had no trouble in getting good schools. She had many suitors during this time, but she seemed to fancy a young farmer. Somehow I did not seem satisfied, but my mind went back to my own youth and I did not interfere. I gave her a nice wedding and she left me to become another farm wife, to raise a large family and be one of God's best mothers (Mrs.
    William F. Gardiner Sr. of Edgerton, Wis.).
    Jimsy was back home now, and we sent John for his turn at college.
    We were alone with my aging husband. As he grew older he grew more taciturn and disagreeable, and would disappear without telling anyone where he was going.
    One morning he disappeared, taking an axe with him, so I supposed
    he was cutting wood in the farm timber lot. But as we had many acres of that, I had no idea where. As night came on we became alarmed, and commenced a search for him. We found him pinned to the ground by a tree he had cut down, seriously hurt and unconscious.
    They carried him home. In those days we did not have the surgery
    we have now, and he lived three years with a badly dislocated hip, getting about on crutches for the remainder of his life. Still getting pleasure out of taking opposite views of others opinions, he diligently read the Bible just for the sake of contradiction.
    And then I laid him to rest (1885) in the cemetery nearby, beside
    his maiden sister, Jessie, who had died before I knew him. Again it seemed that I was captain of the ship, and the years have followed on.
    Jim married (to Miss Alice Bancroft) and went his way, and John
    stayed on the farm. But later on, he too married (to Miss Clara Schofield). Then Jim came home. By this time he had four children. His wife was a sweet, unselfish woman, but far too frail to take on the duties of a farm wife.
    Shortly after they came back to the farm they had another little boy,
    William Wallace. What a wonderful name for such a little fellow. When he was a year old, he was very sick, but fully recovered and got so cute and rosy, with golden curls.
    The following spring, on one of those rare balmy days in late March,
    his mother thought it would do him good to be outside for a while; the older children were away at school and she was busy getting dinner on. Suddenly she realized that she hadn't heard him for a while and hurried out around the corner of the summer kitchen.
    She stopped, horrified. She had forgotten that they had put a tub of
    water there several days ago. Two little feet were sticking up out of the water! She grabbed him and rushed to the door screaming frantically for help. They came from the woodlot a quarter of a mile away, but it was too late. They buried him in the same lot with his grandfather, who drowned many years before.
    We lived on in the same house, but it was crowded as time went on.
    One spring morning, Jim, his wife and two of the little boys were all taken sick. The family doctor was called and said it was la grippe. The next day all were better. Again, it was one of those lovely warm balmy days in March, and it was so warm we had no fire.
    Jim came in and sat with me in the living room. About three o'clock
    in the afternoon I told him, "I'm going to light a fire; I don't want you to get a chill." I went outside and gathered an apronful of chips and lighted a small fire.
    The wind blew terribly hard all afternoon, and in the evening, the
    trees rocked and the house rattled. A stove pipe ran up through the ceiling. Jim looked up and, seeing a light, said, "They must be getting the children to bed early."
    Suddenly, we head a roar; he jumped up and rushed out to the rest of
    the family shouting, "The house is on fire! " He ran upstairs and hurried to the room where he had seen the light. As he opened the door a powerful suction pulled him into the room. He managed to get out and close the door, and back downstairs. He wouldn't let anyone go up there again.
    With such a terrific wind blowing we had little time to save much. I
    rushed in and out saving what I could. Very little was saved from Jim's side of the house. The sky that night was so black that the fire was visible for many miles, and neighbors from all directions came and helped to keep the other buildings from burning.
    Those who have had their homes burned to the ground know the lost
    feeling I had the next morning. The memories of treasures which laid there in the ashes: The great trunks we had brought with us from England; my John's and little Jimsy's kilties; a sign that read "John Thomson - merchant tailor." Truly, I knew the meaning of the old saying, "Fire and water are good friends but bad enemies."
    We built a large new house where the old one had stood. Its lovely
    rooms, large halls and shady porches never seemed to take the place of the little old crowded home to me...

    I am an old lady now, but I still enjoy the company of my children,
    my grandchildren and yes, my great-grandchild (Sammy Marsden). But I look back through the years; I live over again my childhood in England, and I am taking John's hand and starting to the New World, and what?
    I must leave Grandma now, for we buried her on March 8, 1915 (at
    83 years of age) beside her John, and Carrie, and little Wallace. But this would not be complete without telling of some of the unusual happenings about the time of her death.
    Her sister Matilda's son, Donald McLeod (a wealthy businessman
    in far, far away Waipukurau, New Zealand) and his wife had set out to tour the world and then to visit an aunt (Louisa Waddell Thomson Wylie) in America, and an uncle (William Waddell) in England, neither of whom he had ever seen.
    They traveled by way of Japan and the Philippines, and reached our
    home in Janesville in the summer of 1914. He found Grandma still living and had made the first objective of his journey.
    He and his wife, Ida, were visiting at my home when World War I
    broke out. I remember him standing on my front porch, surrounded by his grips (on which were pasted tickets from foreign countries) and saying, with his English accent, "This may be a terrible thing!"
    They left shortly afterward for New York, where they had booked
    passage on one of the finest ships afloat, the Lusitania, on their way to England. Imagine their disappointment to find on arrival in New York that it had sailed the day before - but their deep relief when later they got the news of its having been sunk by a German submarine en route!
    However, they got passage on a smaller ship which traveled all the
    way across the ocean without lights. They were scarcely out to sea when we received a cablegram from New Zealand telling of the death of his mother, Matilda Waddell McLeod, of Whitianga.
    After a slow passage filled with the sense of constant danger, they
    reached England, only to find another disappointment. The uncle, William Waddell, whom he had traveled so far to see, and who had befriended him in his youth, and whom he had hoped in some way to repay, had died several months before.
    They made slow progress on their way back to New Zealand, only to
    hear, on their arrival there, that my grandmother had died. Two sisters and a brother, passing away in separate parts of the world, in a single year (the last of the family).
    I am a married woman now, a mother and grandmother, but I still
    feel the presence of this grandmother, who stands out in my memory, intellectual, ambitious, dependable and with an ever-present sense of humor, taking what life gave her, and her place with the immortal mothers.


©2002 ALHN-Rock County, Wisconsin
Last updated: June 13, 2002
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