Sonnystone Saga: Sisters

To celebrate 17 years living at Sonnystone Acres, we are publishing a series of posts chronicling the first three families who lived here, spanning 111 years… This is the tenth installment of the series…

Mary Erskine Fellows only stayed at her Dad’s farm for a couple of years after the death of her husband and daughter in 1865. By 1870, she had returned to Evansville and was living on Gum Street with her three daughters and her sister, Anna Erskine, who was teaching school. She owned real property worth $5000 and personal property of $600, and the enumerator records her as “Mary E. Fellows, widow”. She never really cared for the city, though, and around 1873 she left again, this time building a house next to her father’s. Two of her brothers, Levi and James Erskine, lived on either side of the home on Erskine Lane, just a stone’s throw from the Methodist chapel built back in 1848. There she stayed for the next eight years.

From the 1880 Vanderburgh County Atlas…just under No5 Erskin Bros, it says “Mrs. Fellows” just next door to the “M E Church” …

Community life in the village of McCutchanville revolved around the church and the school. Mary was a very devout Christian and raised her daughters to be the same; they were in church every time the doors were opened and attended every Revival.

McCutchanville residents had built their first schoolhouse, a log-cabin affair, in 1852, not far from the Fellows’ home. In 1874, a brand new two-story, brick school building was erected. The new school had two school rooms and an upstairs auditorium that also served as a community meeting place. But the village had no streets, no stores, and the post office was the private home of Samuel McCutchan, where mail was delivered weekly. It was far from the bustle of Evansville, away from the smoke stacks that blackened the city skies, but still only an 8-mile buggy ride into town to visit with family or to shop.

Lura, Mary’s oldest daughter, went away to attend the University of Wisconsin in 1875. Her younger daughters, Annie and Allie (as Albion was nicknamed) were inseparable. They had ten cousins living close by and in addition to attending school and church together, they spent much of their childhood years together taking part in the seasonal activities of farm life: planting and harvesting, sheep-shearing, sorghum and cider-making, wheat-threshing, There was always something to be done.

In addition to attending McCutchanville School, Mary taught the girls at home where Allie and Annie read everything they could get their hands on and memorized long poems. They took to writing and when the girls were 16 and 14, they each had one of their poems published in a magazine, “Gems of Poetry”. It was a great thrill for them. Though they didn’t try to get anything else published for a long while, they continued to write and were members of “The Literary Society” a group that met in the community hall in the schoolhouse, where they shared their efforts.

In 1877, Mary’s father, John Erskine, died. Born in Ireland, Erskine was one of the original settlers of the British Settlement. He divided his assets among his many descendants.

17-year-old Annie Fellows began teaching at McCutchanville for the 1880-1881 school year. Allie had just finished elementary school, and was excited to begin Art lessons in Evansville.

Albion and Annie Fellows, circa 1880 — from the Albion Fellows Special Collection, Special Collections, Willard Library

The biggest excitement of 1880 came when their older sister, Lura, married George P. Heilman on November 2. The Heilmans were a prominent Evansville family who owned a large foundry, Heilman Plow Works, as well as other business interests. After a honeymoon in Europe, the couple moved into a beautiful home on Chandler Avenue and started their family.

Annie Fellows went off to college in 1881-1882, attending the University of Iowa where a paternal uncle was a professor. Mary and Albion moved back to Evansville that same year, moving in with Lura and George Heilman. Allie attended Evansville High School, graduating in just two years in 1883. Albion was salutatorian of her high school class and wrote the words and music to the class song, as well as delivering a stirring speech at the commencement ceremonies.

Annie returned after a year at University, and began to teach in the Evansville School System in 1883, a job she continued for the next three years.

Later on, Albion wrote that she was “crushed” that she was unable to attend college to pursue a study of Art and states that her mother’s monetary resources were scarce. I seriously question that explanation. For whatever reason, though, she did not attend, instead taking a job as a secretary in her Uncle Asa Igleheart’s law office. She learned shorthand and quickly became a well-respected court stenographer. She admitted in later years that this experience–often being the only woman in the courtroom, traveling to different counties to record trials, learning how laws are made and tested– prepared her for her future more than a college education could have. She also continued to write and had several poems published in magazines. She joined Trinity Methodist Church (where her father had laid the cornerstone) and was active in various women’s clubs with her sister, Annie.

By the mid-1880s, Allie had moved out of the Heilman house and was living at her Uncle Asa’s house at 1003 Upper Second St. Quite the independent young lady, she had several beaus, though she and Annie were still as inseparable as two working women could be.

One of the gentlemen who courted Albion was Hilary Bacon. Hilary lived just two doors down from Uncle Asa, boarding with his half-brother, Dr. Charles Parke Bacon. The doctor and his wife had helped Hilary set up a dry goods business with three partners, starting out as Keck-Miller, and Co. Thanks to a lot of hard work, it was very successful. By 1887, two of the partners sold out and the store was called Keck-Bacon, located at 207 Main, where it remained for the next decade.

Hilary was enamored of Albion, but so were several other gentlemen. She had at least one declined proposal, and wasn’t particularly inclined toward marriage. She and Annie had grand plans to travel to Europe, though their mother was pressuring them both to marry.

Then Uncle Asa died suddenly in 1887. He was mourned throughout the State of Indiana, and was sorely grieved by his niece Mary Fellows, and her two daughters. He had been their benefactor, as well as a stable, secure source of wisdom and strength to the little family.

After Asa’s death, their mother, Mary, increased the pressure on her two youngest daughters to marry. Annie and Allie gave in, and in December, 1887, they announced their engagements and plans for a double wedding. Albion was to marry Hilary Bacon and Annie was to marry William Johnston. Johnston was their cousin (cringe), son of Kitty Igleheart Johnston, who had died when he was just 9. Johnston had been raised by the old pioneer Charles F. McJohnston up in McCutchanville. He was 12 years older than Annie, a widower with three children, and an established pharmacist (then called a druggist) in Evansville. The wedding was planned for fall of 1888.

But before they married, the sisters insisted on embarking on an adventure which they had planned since they were little girls in McCutchanville: to travel abroad together. Their Grand Tour began on May 21, 1888, and they traveled for three months, seeing as many wonders as they had dreamed of in their childhood.

Returning at the end of the August, Albion and Annie Fellows began to plan their wedding in earnest and set the date for October 11, 1888.

Stay tuned…

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