Glimpses of Life at Centre Furnace Mansion during the 1890’s from Grandma Beaver’s Journals

Centre Furnace Mansion became a quiet retreat after the first generation of Thompson children grew up and moved away from home, and Moses and Mary settled into old age. But in the last decade of the nineteenth century the Mansion was to come alive again as another generation of young people filled the house with energy and activity.

After their parents’ deaths, Will and Annie Thompson moved into the Mansion in 1891 with their four lively children, Mabel, Elliott, Irvine and Wayne (ages, 13, 11, 9 and 8). The family also now included Annie’s mother, “Grandma Beaver,” Mary Armstrong Elliott Beaver.

Grandma Beaver had kept diaries for at least forty years, and fortunately for us today, her recorded moments from those happy years at the Mansion give us glimpses of the family’s comfortable life in the rural, college community of State College. Mary Beaver’s daily writings were certainly spare, but then the journals were tiny 2 ½ by 4 inch leather-bound books! Yet brief as they were, her comments about day-to-day events paint quite a complete picture of affluent, middle-class life in Victorian America.

Annie Elliott Armstrong was a daughter from Mary’s first marriage to a Methodist circuit minister, John Elliott. When Rev. Elliott died in 1852, Mary and Annie, age 3 ½, left Curwensville and moved in with her parents in Lewisburg. In 1863 at age 39, Mary married Peter Beaver, a widower with five daughters. A son, William Preston, was born in 1865. Peter, banker and part owner of an irons works near Lewisburg, was an invalid for many years, dying in 1890. From Mary’s journals of those years with Peter, it is evident their lifestyle had been very similar to what she encountered with the Thompsons during the 1890s…. large home, hired help and yet constant housework, with continual social engagements fitting into the schedule somehow. And the common bond of a deep religious faith.

Mary Beaver was a devout Christian but in her writings she continually admonished herself to be a better person. She wrote that she became a Believer at age eighteen and was baptized in the Methodist church in 1841. She attended church several times a week, missionary society meetings and Wednesday praise services. Her reading material not only included the Bible, but various books and articles by noted Methodist theologians. One of her dear friends all her life was Bishop John Vincent of Buffalo, New York.

The Thompsons were Presbyterians and just as avid church goers, attending church in Lemont. When Grandma lived with them, often they attended one denomination on Sunday morning, the other in the evening. The college’s Methodist chapel seemed to be Mary’s choice, and the entire family attended services with her. Sometimes eldest son Irvine was permitted to ride his horse to chapel. Annie frequently held Sunday school classes at the Mansion for the neighborhood children. She stated she made a full and complete surrender to God in 1896. When religious conferences were held in the area, Mary always attended, and Annie and the children, sometimes. There was an evident curiosity about other denominations and religions. Whenever they were out of town, Mary and Will and Annie attended not only Methodist and Presbyterian churches, but they also visited Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal and Jewish services.

The college figured prominently in the family’s activities. They went to lectures on widely varied topics. On one occasion the children attended a masquerade on George Washington’s birthday. The Thompsons paid social calls to college professors as well as Pres. Atherton on a regular basis. In summer Will Thompson frequently took Annie and Mary for drives in the carriage. They rode around the campus to see the floral displays or went for a trot around the track, sometimes by moonlight. At other times Anna or Mary drove Mary’s phaeton she had brought with her from Lewisburg. In winter they used the sleigh or a large sled if there was a group. Mabel and Irvine attended classes on campus, studying subjects like botany, zoology and chemistry. Mabel also took piano lessons there. From 1892 until 1906 the Thompsons had a continuing bill with the college and were charged for various lessons and classes, room rent, and “incidentals” for the gymnasium and library.

During the winter of 1893, Mabel and Irvine ice skated to the college! Mary commented that the ground was covered with ice. She often reported January and February’s zero – and below – temperatures. By mid-January the workmen were always able to chop blocks of ice from the pond for the ice house.

The family enjoyed college commencement activities in June, watching military drills and hearing the speakers. Mabel Thompson graduated from the Pennsylvania State College in 1898, and Grandma proudly reported that she received first honors. There was a reception at the Armory. After Elliott graduated on June 13, 1900, Will and Annie had lunch at Pres. Atherton’s. Elliott was the first child to leave the family circle, when he accepted a “situation” in a tin mill in Cambridge, Ohio that September.

The 90s were fun years for the Thompson kids. During the winter, they ice skated on the pond and dam, rode coasters and had sleigh rides. In summer the boys rode their colts. There were picnics to Hunter’s and HeclaParks, and Shingletown and McBride’s Gaps. In the fall they all went to the granger picnics on the train. The boys helped in the oatsfield, picked berries in summer and chestnuts in the fall, raked and burned leaves in the yard and even got into mischief. Wayne fell off the top of the oven in March of 1900. Grandma reported he had a “convulsion,” but was up and about in a day or two.

When Elliott was sixteen in 1896 he rode his bicycle to summer camp at Lewistown – CampGibbon. Later Annie took all the children for a several days’ camping out, as Mary put it, near Bellefonte. She then came back for Grandma to spend a day with them. The Thompsons and Mary enjoyed being out-of-doors, and walking was a great pastime. Along with Annie, Will Thompson was very involved with family activities, though in the late 90s he spent weeks at a time away on business trips – usually to West Virginia.

Initially the children were schooled at home by a Miss Julia Gregg. Later Irvine and Wayne attended and graduated from the Bellefonte Academy. While attending PennState, their college fraternity brothers visited them at home, and they would invite several young ladies to sing-alongs and dances in the parlor, followed by cake and lemonade. On his eighteenth birthday, Irvine had the fellows in for a chicken and waffle supper. In the late 1890s mention is made of the boys going to football games and Elliott going out-of-town with the basketball team.

Family sing-alongs in the parlor were frequent, with Annie and Mabel playing duets. Sometimes guests would bring a stereoscope and they would look at travel scenes or perhaps, “The Life of Christ” series. Visits to the John Thompsons were most enjoyable because they had a gramophone. The King’s Daughters and Christian Endeavor met at the Mansion from time to time. Mabel invited her girl friends for lawn and tea parties, or gatherings on the porch. On one occasion Mabel hostessed an in-room party in her bedroom – perhaps the forerunner of the slumber party!

“Tea companies” were often held by Annie and Mary. ( Polishing the silver was one of the chores of the hired girls.) There were frequent dinner parties, too, sometimes with ten guests besides the family. Interesting dinner guests included Gov. Beaver, who was a nephew of Mary’s husband, Gen. and Mrs. Curtin , and the John Potters. President and Mrs. Atherton came to call. Will’s Aunt Annie Thompson came for extended visits about once a year. Mary’s Beaver step-children and their children stayed as well.

One of Annie’s favorite recipe books was The Presbyterian Cookbook of 1875. “Drop Jumbles” was a family favorite baked by both Annie and Grandma Beaver:

. Drop Jumbles

1 lb. sugar 1 tsp. soda

¾ lb. butter 1 lb. currants

4 whole eggs flour enough to make batter thick enough

to drop from a spoon.

1 cup sour cream buttered pan (or baking sheet)

(oven temperature – as a cook, you were supposed to know that!)

The book also includes household hints for cleaning straw hats, kid gloves, renovating silk, even destroying bed bugs!

On Thanksgiving in 1895, twenty-six guests were served a “bountiful dinner”! Mary didn’t discuss menus, but the table must have groaned with the assortment of vegetables, fruits and jams put up by Annie and Mary. Canning and preserving started in June with cherries and pineapple, and Mary noted buying some of the canning jars and sugar herself, and hours spent parting jelly tumblers. July was a month for picking berries and preparing jellies and jams and vinegar– raspberry, blackberry, gooseberry, currant and strawberry. The women were very busy in September with peas, tomatoes, peaches and peach marmalade, grape, quince and apple jelly. Late October was the time for boiling the apple butter.

Apple cider was not mentioned, but it is a probable beverage. Nor was “spirits” mentioned. In all likelihood the Thompsons were teetotalers. Annie was involved in the forming of the local WTCU chapter in 1892, and meetings were sometimes held at the Mansion. As a teenager, son Will Beaver “took the pledge” much to Mary’s delight, and perhaps relief. In 1898 Mary commented on the death of Frances Willard, whom she called a great loss to the temperance movement.

In December Mary noted shopping for Christmas gifts, usually in Bellefonte, but also at the college. She speaks of wrapping presents, filling the stockings, and getting the large tree trimmed on Christmas Eve (1892). The neighbor children were sometimes invited in to see the tree on the Eve of Christmas. She didn’t describe the gifts given or received, but the 1897 journal was inscribed “to Grandma Beaver from Baby Beaver, Christmas 1896.” (Baby Beaver was Miriam who died a year later). Mary did dress a doll one year but didn’t say for whom. She usually mailed boxes to her stepdaughters; sometimes she sent money. Christmas dinner guests were usually the family, as well as the James and John Thompsons, the Hamiltons and Crists (Will’s brothers and sisters ) some years. Dessert might be hickory nut cake There didn’t seem to be special celebrations on New Year’s Eve, except that Mary might stay up past midnight to see the New Year in. The tree was taken down during the first week of the year.

Other holidays were mentioned briefly, if at all — church and song service on Easter Sunday, fireworks at a neighbor’s on July 4, Bellefonte’s Centennial parade (Mary spelled the name “Bellfont” until l895). There is no mention of Valentine’s Day, but there is a surprising notation on February 2, 1900 that the “coon saw his shadow.”

Birthdays were acknowledged with gifts, such as books and flowers, and one year Mary received a china clock from the grandchildren. She gave money to both the adults (typically the generous gift of $20) and children (sometimes $5) on birthdays. Some of the journals include lists of both her tithes and offerings, and personal expenditures.

Mary was accustomed to having hired help in Lewisburg — a “girl” to help around the house, and a hired man. The Thompsons sometimes had two hired girls, usually “colored,” recommended to them by Mary’s sister Sue in Virginia and later a friend in Washington. On one occasion they secured a couple of girls from the college to help out.. It seems to have been difficult to keep help, and Mary notes with some annoyance when the girls are away or sick or quit. A Mrs. Osmon would often come while Annie was trying to hire a new girl, and Mary would sometimes pay her personally.

While men must have been employed on the property, Mary never describes anyone working around the house or with the animals. There must have been a chicken coop, because she commented that she had packed ten dozen eggs for step-daughter Maggie. She and Annie – with the boys’ help – did a lot of yard work, planting flower beds and weeding. Geraniums seemed to be a favorite yard flower. The side yard was mowed with a scythe. A crew came at the end of July to harvest the wheat on the property, and supper would be served to them at the end of the day –15 or 16 men.

There seems to have been more than enough domestic chores for all the females in the family. Mary’s particular job was ironing — and more ironing. Lifting those hot and very heavy sad irons must have been hard work for a woman in her seventies. During Spring house cleaning in April and May, everyone pitched in to clean the rooms and take up the mats, lay new matting, and to clean and mend the carpets. The procedure was reversed in October, when the rugs were re-laid in the halls and bedrooms, and the stoves were put up. (Mary bought the coal for her room.) These ladies even made their own candles – three dozen on one occasion in 1893. Lace curtains were washed and stretched to shape on wood stretcher frames. (I remember those miserable things from my early childhood!) Portieres (door curtains) were also mentioned as being hung in the sitting or dining rooms. Sometimes carpet rags were taken to the college to be woven.

Mary doesn’t describe the home’s furnishings except for the addition of book cases to the sitting room. In late Spring the family planned an outing to hunt for trailing Arbutus . Ferns were also popular summertime indoor greenery. The parlor on the first floor is mentioned, along with dining room and sitting room, mostly because of the frequent sweeping and cleaning. Grandma’s bedroom was on the second floor; one of Mary’s descendants said it was the west front bedroom. The spare room is spoken of from time to time, mostly because of the frequency of over-night guests. Annie’s bedroom (and Will’s, one can assume) and a room for Mabel were also on the second floor. The boys’ room was on the third floor, along with the trunk room. There was a garret above the kitchen. Mary speaks of filling pillows in the basement.

Interior rooms of the house were painted and papered a couple of times during the 1890s. In March of 1892 the boys’ room and spare room were papered. The kitchen was painted and a new kitchen roof installed in Oct. 1896. The Mansion may have had a telephone by 1896, since Mary notes receiving a telephone call from Margaret in Pittsburgh. Although there had been a water closet in the house, in October, 1898, a big stride toward the 20th century was the installation of a bathroom with running water. Mary enthusiastically wrote, “It will be quite a luxury.” In March 1900 the dining room and library/sitting room were painted and wallpapered – that was a major job which took the workmen six weeks.

Tearing rags for patches (from their silk and wool dresses), sometimes dying them, and piecing them occupied a lot of Mary’s time, and granddaughter Mabel helped with this. Silk curtains were made. Mary sewed lots and lots of “comfortables.” Sometimes they were tacked, but couple of times a year Mary would have a large quilting frame set up in her bedroom. Amazingly she could quilt a comfort in two days, and she would make one after another, not only for the Thompson family’s use but for her step-daughters’ families. She quilted mattress covers, and skirts for Annie and herself, and a couple of times noted she had knit a rug.

Annie engaged a seamstress, Maggie Johnson, who seemed almost part of the family, she came to sew so frequently. She stayed for at least a week at a time, usually at the beginning of a new season. Annie and Mary sewed right along with her. They also visited a Miss Armor in Bellefonte occasionally, and a seamstress in Oak Hall.

Photographs of Mary as a young matron show her to be a slender, dark-haired woman with a dignified bearing, modestly dressed. By the 1890s, her photographs indicate she had become quite grandmotherly – with rounded figure, white hair and spectacles, dressed in dark, yet stylish, silks. Being well groomed was very important to the well-bred Victorian woman. Their constant social outings and receiving visitors at the Mansion dictated that Mary and Annie pay a lot of attention to their wardrobes. On their visits to Philadelphia there were many long shopping trips to Wanamaker’s, usually with lunch at the store. Horne’s in Pittsburgh was another shopping destination, and Mary lunched at the Woman’s Exchange. . In 1898 Mary purchased a hat at Horne’s for the rather extravagant sum of $5. (To compare prices, that year she bought a corset for 50 cents; 9 yards of silk for $6.12; comb and purse for $1.15.) Gloves were a necessity to complete the costume, and Mary speaks of knit and taffeta ones. Both Mary and Annie wore furs in winter, and their capes were bought in New York or Pittsburgh. Storing them each April was a Spring ritual sometimes delayed because the weather would quite remain cold until May.

Like most Victorian ladies, Mary read a lot in her leisure time. She enjoyed learning about other cultures and far away places and was an avid fan of Spurgeon, Moody, and other Methodist teachers. Her brother Henry recommended “The Bible in Spain” by George Burrows. It took her a long time to read the book, but she enjoyed it a lot. In 1900 she sent away for a Roycroft book. She read the publication, “The Outlook,” but she made no mention of reading Peterson’s, Cosmopolitan or other ladies’ magazines. Current events were followed through the local newspapers. She sometimes pasted in a scrapbook, but she didn’t identify the contents. Mary did lots of mending, referring to stockings and the children’s mittens. She didn’t talk about doing stitchery, except for hemstitching table napkins occasionally, usually a dozen at a time. She enjoyed corresponding with a lady friend whose pioneer life in Idaho interested her very much, as well as her cousin Charlotte Armstrong in England.

Mary took short trips back to her home of many years in Lewisburg, traveling by train from Lemont. She was fond of visiting her Aunt Mary and returning to her church. She always sounded a bit homesick, missing friends and reliving memories of her happy life with her second husband and their children. She frequently made train trips to Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York City to stay with her Beaver stepdaughters and their families, her half-brother Henry in Easton and half-sister Sue in Lynchburg, Va. And when son Will married in 1895 and owned and operated a tin mill in New Kensington, she would hop the train and visit him and Nellie, and then stepdaughter Maggie Cassidy who lived in Pittsburgh.

Mary doted on her last child, son Will. After he had left home during the late 1880s, the journal pages fairly glowed when she reported his visits. He had a close relationship with his half-sister Annie and visited Lemont fairly often. On one such visit in August 1893, he took Mary to the World’s Fair in Chicago where they rode around in a Tally-ho to see the sights. Annie and Will Thompson went a couple of weeks later.

That fall, Mary met stepdaughter Anna Harris in Philadelphia and together with Anna’s sister, Edith Wolverton, they visited the tourist attractions of New York – Grant’s Tomb, Metropolitan Museum, the stock exchange (which Mary said was a wonderful revelation) , and stopped by the “magnificently furnished” Waldorf Hotel. Edith was a perfect guide, since she lived in the City.

In 1900 at age seventy-seven Mary was still traveling. In January she visited Will and Nellie’s new home in Chicago and went shopping as usual — Will took her to Marshall Fields. While in Chicago she experienced her first ride in an automobile — a transfer between train stations. She did lament that this visit would be the last one to Chicago. She was beginning to accept her physical limitations.

However, in November she took granddaughter Mabel on a nostalgia tour , stopping first in Lewisburg, on to Baltimore, then to Lynchburg, and finally to Washington, DC. There they visited every tourist attraction. They toured Mt. Vernon, Arlington Cemetery, had lunch at the Congressional Library, toured the White House and grounds, the Patent Office, the Corcoran library of sculpture and paintings, the Museum (presumably the Smithsonian). Then they visited the TreasuryBuilding, and the government horticulture buildings and greenhouses. What an achievement at her age! They were in the Capitol on Election Day, and Mary said she was pleased with the outcome of the Nov. elections, so one can assume she was a Republican! The highlight of the trip for her was attending Sunday service at the MetropolitanMethodist Church and seeing Pres. William McKinley in his seat.

Mary never traveled abroad, although she contemplated visiting her cousin Charlotte Armstrong in England. Several of her stepdaughters toured in Europe, son Will and wife traveled Nellie to England and the Continent, and granddaughter Ella Cassidy went to Bermuda. Thoughtfully they remembered her with little mementos from their trips, so perhaps she traveled vicariously from listening to the stories of their experiences. Her stepdaughter Miriam Tilge wrote her about staying at Lake Mohonk in New York state – in 1896 it was an extremely chic destination for those who loved the outdoors, and it is still a popular resort.

Mary had very close relationships with her children and stepchildren, their spouses and children. She showed a special affection for her son Will’s little daughter Miriam, and she was truly devastated when baby Miriam died at the age of twenty-seven months. After the baby’s death. Will and his wife Nellie moved to Chicago, increasing her sadness. But

Grandma was well loved in the close-knit family at Annie’s, and she seemed especially close to granddaughter Mabel. Certainly life was anything but boring at Centre Furnace with Grandma Beaver being included in all the parties and activities.

“May your life have just enough shadow to make a glorious sunset” was one of many quotations in the journals. Mary Beaver’s life did have shadows and sorrows which should be acknowledged, since they were so often footnotes to her entries…. the deaths of her two babies and of her father and beloved stop-mother….her husband Peter’s death early in 1890 and then later that year caring for half-sister Sue during her last illness and death at the young age of fifty-six. In 1891 giving up her home of many years and leaving her church and friends to become part of Annie’s family was a huge adjustment. Her half-brother Henry’s blindness was so distressing, and she was with him when he died in 1896. In 1897 her granddaughter Emily Harris (stepdaughter Anna’s child) died suddenly of typhoid fever at age seventeen. Baby Miriam Beaver died in 1898.

Typhoid fever was a frequent illness, and most of the children and grandchildren were very sick at one time or another. All of the Thompson children had the chicken pox. Cholera morbus (intestinal inflammation) was a common ailment for every one, along with the grippe and quinsy (severe sore throat). Quinine was primarily a medication for malaria, but Mary and other Victorians took it pretty much for whatever ailed them! Victorians believed poor eyesight was caused by bad reading habits when one was young. Whatever the cause, Mary Beaver was afflicted in 1891, when she saw a doctor in Philadelphia who prescribed eyeglasses. By 1900 her difficulty in reading concerned her a lot. Her hearing began to deteriorate, too, making it hard to hear sermons and lectures.

Her most serious illness was caused by an accident in November, 1897. The Keystone Gazette reported Mrs. Beaver knocked over a kerosene lamp on the desk in her bedroom when she accidentally moved the lid of the desk. The family, hearing her screams, ran upstairs and extinguished the flames before they did much damage. Mary did not elaborate in her journal but did concede the accident could have been much worse. The burns on her hands were painful for several days and she stayed alone in her room on Thanksgiving Day. (Apparently someone in the family has Mary Beaver’s desk – a walnut veneer roll-top.)

In spite of her infirmities, Mary Beaver lived another eleven years, until March 9, 1912. There are no further journals after 1900 to let her share with us those final years. Her 1900 diary tells us that she was looking forward to the new century with optimism and curiosity. She’d already experienced the amazement of the automobile and delight of a modern bathroom!

While continuing to enjoy the interesting lives of her grandchildren, it is likely she turned ever more frequently to her memories of Bible passages for comfort and contemplation.

Stepdaughter Anna Harris died in 1906. Then the unexpected, tragic death of her son-in-law Will Thompson must have grieved her deeply. Her own death occurred just two weeks later. Mary Beaver was almost eighty-nine. Shortly after Will Thompson’s death, Annie moved from CentreFurnace Mansion and Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. Just the memories were left behind.

Mary Beaver would be astonished, and pleased hopefully, to know that those daily jottings about herself and her family at Centre Furnace seem so fascinating to us, a hundred years later.

Sandra Byham, February, 2003