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 eleventh installment of the series…
The Evansville Journal reported the 10/11/1888 double wedding of Annie Fellows and Will Johnston/Albion Fellows and Hilary Bacon in great detail the next day. “It is quite an unusual thing to witness double marriages, which fact, with the prominence and standing of the parties made the affair doubly interesting.” Trinity Methodist was filled to standing room only. Annie and Albion wore heavily embroidered China silk; Hilary, Will, and the ushers wore traditional black. The Journal sums it up: “The parties are well-known in Evansville and will receive the warm congratulations of many friends.”
Married life in the Gilded Age came with the expectation that the wife would not work outside the home. Albion settled into a home just doors from from where she had lived with her Igleheart relatives. She wrote later that “my husband, housekeeping, flowers, reading, music, my friends, and a pleasant social round filled up the hours.”
Her sister lived a five minute walk away –where the Penny Lane Coffee House is today. Annie married a ready-made family; her step-children were 16, 10, and 7. When their mother died in 1883, Will had sent them to live with wealthy relatives of their mother in Pewee Valley, Kentucky, just east of Louisville. They were thrilled to return to live in Evansville with their father and new step-mother, but considered Pewee Valley paradise and continued to spend their summers there.
Albion, though, had to start her family from scratch and she wasted no time about it. In September, 1889, Albion gave birth to her first child, a daughter she named Margaret Erskine. She was delighted. Hilary’s business, now Lahr-Bacon Department Store, was booming.
Things weren’t going as well with Annie, unfortunately. Will suffered from consumption (tuberculosis) and in 1890 his health declined dramatically. By June, 1891, he applied for and received a Civil War Pension. Annie struggled to keep the bills paid and care for her invalid husband on the meager pension.
Albion was as concerned as any close sister would be, but she was pregnant with her second child. She gave birth to another daughter, Albion Mary, on January 4, 1892. Annie’s husband, Will Johnston, died a month later on February 8, 1892.
Annie received a Civil War Widow pension, but the economics looked pretty grim. Her oldest step-daughter, Mary, 20, had returned to Pewee Valley, but Annie wanted to keep the younger children, Rena, 14, and John, 11, with her in their home in Evansville. In order to make ends meet, she tutored, did typing, submitted poems and stories to magazines,…and she began to write children’s books.
Just down the street, Albion was suffering from what in these days we call post-partum depression, back then called “nervous prostration”. The books I’ve researched are old and take a great deal of time debating whether her depression was caused by the “stifling of her creative outlets” caused by the rigidity of The Gilded Age. If it weren’t for the proximity to her sister’s plight and the birth of her second baby, I might buy that. Given her independence and smarts, she would never have been happy just going to teas, but from her own description it sounds like deep post-partum depression and thank goodness today we understand it better and are able to help more.
She writes about it in her autobiography, “Beauty for Ashes”:
“There was one long while where I could not hold them (her daughters) in my arms. The house was hushed and darkened, and the servants went around with noiseless steps. For months I was very ill. Then, for nearly a year, I dragged about white and thin…weary, listless, indifferent, with no special interest in anything but my family…For hours I would sit idly, not making an effort even to read… It seemed as if the wheels of life had suddenly stopped…It was two years before I took any interest in people, two more before the shadow of the eclipse had moved off my world. It was eight years at least before all my energy and enthusiasm and joy of living returned.”
Meanwhile, Annie had her first book published in 1893. “Big Brother” sold few copies, though. In 1894, she won $1000.00 in a contest for the story “Joel: A Boy of Galilee”, which encouraged her. She, Rena, and John frequently visited the children’s aunt and uncle, and cousin, Hallie, at their estate in Pewee Valley. Annie was inspired to write a book based on Hallie. She called it “The Little Colonel” and it was loosely based on the family, their servants, and the community. In 1896, Annie sent off her manuscript to a new publishing house, L.C. Page in Boston, MA. The editors began the back and forth, but there was no money exchanged.
Annie Fellows Johnston writes in her autobiography, “The Land of the Little Colonel”:
“In September, 1897, we came to a turn in the road where we could only see one step ahead at a time. Rena joined Mary in Pewee Valley; I sold or stored our household goods and took John up to Highland Park to put him in the military school there.”
Annie took a position as a companion/governess/chaperone for a young lady, traveling for three months in Europe. By the time she returned, “The Little Colonel” had been published and was a phenomenal success. She moved to Pewee Valley, where she followed up her success with more success, and The Little Colonel Series eventually comprised 13 books and other merchandise, including a 1935 movie starring Shirley Temple.
I Really Love Annie, Really Really…
As Albion was coming out of her depression, Annie spent time with her compiling a book of poems they had written when they were growing up in McCutchanville. “Songs of Ysame” was published in 1897. That same year, Albion and Hilary moved into a their newly-built home at 1021 SE Second Street. She joined The Women’s Foreign Missionary Society at Trinity Methodist and returned to involvement in the Ladies Aid there. A Calendar of Events in Evansville, 1898, included two poems each by Albion and Allie. Slowly, she was coming back to Life and when she finally began to paint again in 1899, she felt truly healed.
In 1901, Albion gave birth to twins: Joy and Hilary, Jr. Margaret was 12 and Albion jr was 9. The Bacons were quite rich. Albion had two nannies for the twins, a housekeeper, cook, and gardener. She lived in a beautiful home on a street full of beautiful homes. She was totally unaware of anything but the life of privilege for many years, but that began to change.
Albion Fellows Bacon tells the story of how she “woke up” in her beautifully written autobiography “Beauty for Ashes”, which I urge you to read. For purposes of brevity, I will sum it up thusly: Realizing the plight of poor people, she especially noted that their living conditions were abominations.
Believing that substandard housing was the root of urban social problems, she tried to pass regulations to improve Evansville tenements, but failed. She changed her tactics and began to lobby at the State level, with her goal to pass a statewide housing law. She worked with a national group to draft legislation which was sponsored by the Indianapolis Commercial Club in return for her work lobbying the state legislature. She attended every session of the Indiana General Assembly from 1909 to 1917! As a result, housing reform bills were passed in Indiana in 1909, 1913, and 1917. The 1917 housing reform bill was passed unanimously. Albion wrote pamphlets and books on tenement reform throughout those years.
Albion’s daughter, Margaret, had died in 1909, just 20-years-old, while away at college. It was a blow, but she persisted in her passion. She writes that she always made family her top priority, taking her children along when she traveled to Indianapolis for the legislature sessions and when she traveled to speak at various clubs and organizations around the country. Hilary became involved with local philanthropic causes in Evansville and was a strong support for his wife’s efforts.
I wonder what it was like to be the daughter and niece of such dynamic women–and to carry your mother’s name, no less.