Memories of my great-grandmother: Mary Ellen (Wentworth) Arnett
                                                                                                                             By Jim Arnett
     
How is it that I find myself so fascinated by this lady from my distant memories? Today I can easily picture this tiny woman - an old, shrunken, and bent lady with deeply wrinkled skin, using a cane to get around. I can’t say that she was ever specifically loving or kind or harsh with me - I was just this child that visited with her grandson and his wife. Keep in mind that she was 71 when I was born. Images of my great grandma and her home in Rossburg, Ohio are etched in my mind as vivid as any photograph. I cannot really recall all the times I visited her home and it might be that I saw her only once after my family moved to Texas in 1952. I know that my father and his sister had a very strong relationship with their grandmother, perhaps some of that affection subconsciously came through to me.
 

Her Story

 

Her name was Mary Ellen Wentworth but everyone called her Ella. She was born two days before Christmas in 1869 and died in early August 1959. Ella was the youngest of 14 children her father Egbert had with his two wives – four with his first wife Cynthia, and then ten more with his second wife Phoebe. Ella’s mother Phoebe died of typhus in December of 1881 just before Ella’s twelfth birthday.
Mary Ellen was not supposed to be a Wentworth – she should have been a Smith. It was an event in her father’s childhood that caused this change. Egbert was the son of Gratia Wentworth and John Smith - of whom little is known. Gratia and John were married about 1819-1820. Egbert was born in late 1820 and his sister Electa in 1824. John, Gratia and their two children lived in Sackets Harbor, New York. A story says that John Smith went to California and died while on the trip.

Egbert and his younger sister Electa were adopted by their mother’s father - Nathan Wentworth, and they took his family name. It’s likely that Gratia and her children moved to Lockport, New York to live with her father. At some point Gratia and her two children left New York and moved west to Ohio and settled in Darke County. Gratia Smith died in 1879 and an earlier census shows her living with her son and his family so Ella would have known her grandmother.

This is the only known photograph of Egbert Wentworth. It is difficult to estimate his age in this photo as beards were common at that time. With a receding hairline and gray in

his hair and beard he could easily be in his 50’s or older. He was born in 1820, so this picture might be from somewhere in the1870’s or later. Note the straight line of his left leg – this is a wooden leg. It was said that he lost his leg in an accident while working on the Erie Canal.
Growing up, Ella was especially close to her two older brothers – Frank and Bill, two and four years older than her respectively. As young people the three of them would load a piano and a couple of other instruments into a wagon and go off to play for barn dances and similar events. Music was a staple activity of her home as it was with many others at that time.

This is an early picture of Ella, probably when she was about 15 or 16, about 1885. It is a tintype - a photo on a metal plate about 2” X 3”. Although it is not dated, a tape on the back says “Ella Arnett & Friend”. It is not likely she would have posed for this picture after she was married, so the picture very likely predates her marriage.

Ella married Leander D (Lee) Arnett in early 1887 when she was 17 and he was 22. They shared the same birth day of December 23. Their first son was born just over a year later in 1888, he was named Royal Nelson. His name Nelson may have been to honor one of Ella’s deceased brothers who died in 1860 at the age of one.

My grandfather, William Floyd, was born four years later in early 1892. Their third son, Gerald Charles was born twelve years later in 1904. (Author’s note: Gerald’s name is pronounced with a hard “G” as in “Go”, not a soft “G” as in George)
This is an undated charcoal portrait of Lee Arnett and his family. Using the estimated ages of the two older sons as a guide, this portrait was probably done about 1900 – 1902, before their third son Gerald was born. Roy is standing between his parents and Floyd is sitting on his father’s knee. A note on the back of the work indicates that the third son Gerald, was added to the portrait (above Lee’s right shoulder) at a later date, probably about 1908 – 1910 (estimate based on the Gerald’s likely age).

There are no known photographs of Lee Arnett.
Lee died in an auto accident in November 1917; Ella was 47 and they had been married over 30 years. It was the occasion of my father’s birth that was tied to Lee’s death. My father Carl was born on November 2 and on November 4, Lee, Ella, and Gerald drove to Dayton to pick up Carl’s two year-old sister Margaret and keep her for a while to give their son Floyd and his wife some relief with a new baby. It was on the return trip to Rossburg that Lee pulled to the side of the road to allow an oncoming wagon to get by. He pulled over too far and the car rolled over into a deep ditch. Lee died immediately his wife Ella and the children were thrown clear and uninjured. Lee and Ella’s youngest son Gerald was 13 at the time. It was said that for several years Ella blamed Lee’s death on my father’s birth. At the time of his death, Lee and Ella were operating a hotel in Rossburg with Ella handling the restaurant side of the business. After Lee’s death, Ella sold the hotel and for some period of time she and Gerald supported themselves by hanging wallpaper in area homes. At a later date, Ella reopened a restaurant across the street from the hotel they previously owned.

 

Her Home

 

Lee and Ella built their home on a corner lot in Rossburg, Ohio, at the intersection of Ross Street and Norton Street. Across Norton Street on the side of the house was a small Methodist church that is still there today. It was substantial frame home of two stories on probably what was at least a one-half acre lot.

As I said earlier, my memories of this home are quite vivid – at least for the parts of the house I was allowed to be in. Back then, children were not allowed to wander around a home to potentially get into mischief. It is possible I might have been taken upstairs for a nap when I was small, but I cannot recall any details of that part of the house.

Downstairs is another story. There was a covered wooden porch across the entire back of the house and two entrances into the house from the porch. The door nearest the side street was the one everyone used when visiting. This entrance came into the dining room where immediately on the left was the dining table, always with dinner place settings laid out and covered with a white cloth. A major feature of the room was a large free-standing stove for heating that probably burned fuel oil. To the right was a doorway that went to the kitchen while straight ahead was the doorway to a sitting area that looked out onto the side street and the church.

The sitting area is where I can still picture my great grandma, sitting in a rocking chair with a shawl around her shoulders. She had a prominent nose and chin, eyes that were bright and firm behind her thick, round glasses. Her hair was always pulled back into a simple bun. Her eyes would crinkle as she would begin to smile and pull me close for a hug. The sitting room had windows looking out to Norton Street and the Methodist church. There was a door that opened onto a side porch but I cannot recall it ever being used. This door was actually the formal entrance to the home as there was no door on the Ross Street side coming into the parlor. The stairs to the second floor were in this room, opposite from the outside door. A set of double doors led to a parlor on the front of the house and I cannot recall ever seeing this room open to view. The sitting room also had a small fuel oil stove for heating.

The kitchen was always a special place for me. This is where a large tin of Ritz or Sunshine crackers was always kept out on the counter and I could help myself to them. Entering the kitchen from the dining room, on the right was the sink and its counter. A hand pump for the well water was mounted on the counter and the door out to the back porch was nearby. On the left as you came in the room was a large “cookstove” that burned coal or wood and across the room was a smaller 3-burner oil stove. Also across from the dining room door was a wall of cupboards and counter space – and the tin of crackers!

In addition to the parlor, there was one other room on the ground floor that I never got to see. It was a small room under the stairs and per my aunt Margaret, it had doors from the parlor and also the kitchen. Ella’s father, Egbert lived with the family and this was a small bedroom that he used until he died in 1912 at the age of 92.

 

Outside

 

The back porch had another pump for the well water. This pump was possibly four feet high and had a large handle. It always had a tin cup hanging on it and I can assure you there is no taste comparable to cool water from a deep well that is drunk from a tin cup.

Going straight out the back was a walkway. On the right was a cold cellar – a concrete structure partially sunken into the ground. On the left there was a large chicken coop.  Further out on the left by the barn was the outhouse or privy –

a two-holer if I correctly recall. Finally, at the end of the walk at the back of the lot was a very large barn. I can’t recall ever being allowed in the barn. This is one of my all-time favorite pictures of my great grandma. Written in pencil on the back is “1947 and i am 77 to Carl and Family From Gramma”. She is standing on the walkway going out to the back of the property and that’s her chicken coop behind her. Her home would be on her right and the barn to her left. That is a neighbor’s barn and outhouse behind her.
 

 

Her Family

 

Royal Nelson

 

There is little information available about Ella’s oldest son Roy. Only three photographs survive, two in his Marine uniform and probably taken about the same time in 1918. It is his touching obituary - probably written by his mother, that provides the best details of his life:

“Roy Nelson Arnett, son of Lee and Ella Arnett, was born near Rossburg, Ohio, April 28, 1888, passed from this life July 5, 1937 at the Veterans’ Hospital, Dayton, Ohio, age 49 years, 2 months, 7 days. Early in life he chose to be a telegraph operator and was employed by the Big Four and Cincinnati Northern Railway Companies. In September 1914, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at Cincinnati, Ohio, and served during the World War and was released from service January 6th, 1919. In December, 1919, he re-enlisted and on December 17, sailed for Germany where he served as Radio Operator of Engineers for three years, then returned to the states and spent two years in the Aviation service. He received his honorable discharge in September, 1924. After his discharge he was employed for some time with the Western Union of Dayton, Ohio. As his health would permit during the later years of his life, he developed an interest in painting, lettering and decorating, of which he demonstrated efficiency and ability.

During his service to his country as a soldier he received a number of medals in recognition for services rendered. Although having given ten years of the best of his life in service to his country as a soldier he seldom mentioned it, unless approached in a conversational way. During his declining health he was still a brave soldier, seldom complaining. He bore in his body the marks of a soldier and his sickness which claimed his life was the price of service rendered. His passing will leave a vacancy in the home which he shared with his aged mother, his father having preceded him in death November 4th, 1917. He also leaves two brothers, Floyd, of Rossburg, O., and Gerald, of Baltimore, Maryland. Other relative and friends share in the loss of his departure.”

Read his obituary closely to gain some further understanding of this man. He enlisted in the Marines at the age of 26 about the time war broke out in Europe but three years before the U.S. declared war on Germany. He was discharged three months after the war ended but found that he enjoyed military life and reenlisted. The line that says “He bore in his body the marks of a soldier and his sickness which claimed his life was the price of service rendered.” refers to his being exposed to mustard gas during the war, the effects of which would bring his life to an early end. The photo to the left is dated 1919 and shows Roy (left) with his brother Floyd and his nephew Carl. Among the items saved from Ella’s home is a fragile silk handkerchief imprinted with “U.S. Marine Corps” and a drawing of two Marines overlooking  a ship in a harbor. This is a typical souvenir a young marine might give to a sweetheart, his wife, or his mother.

 

William Floyd

 

My grandfather Floyd (I never heard him called William or Bill) married Glendora Waters on December 23, 1913 – his mother and father’s birthday. By the time the U.S. entered World War I, he already had two children and likely was exempt from the draft enacted in 1917. This is the earliest photo I have of my grandfather. Using the children’s ages as a guide, this family portrait was probably taken in late 1918 or early 1919. Floyd and Glendora would each be about twenty-seven. My father Carl was about one year old and his sister Margaret was three years old.
Floyd was working as a railroad conductor when he met Glendora. He had been regularly seeing a girl from Rossburg and they were expected to marry. Apparently Floyd and Glendora met when she came to Indiana from her home in Iowa to visit friends. Glendora was a teacher and was engaged to a well- liked young man from a prominent family back in Iowa at the time. When she announced her intention to marry Floyd, the scandal was unacceptable and she was “disowned” by her family in Iowa.

Floyd and Glendora operated a delicatessen in Ansonia, Ohio, for several years and eventually Floyd moved into construction where he eventually became the general superintendant of a company doing new buildings and major remodeling. After his retirement, he and Glendora moved to St. Petersburg, Florida for several years and later to San Antonio, Texas. Floyd died in December 1967 and is buried in San Antonio.

 

Gerald Charles

 

Like his brother Roy, I do not have a lot of information of Ella’s youngest son Gerald. He joined the Coast Guard and made a career of that service. Here is an early picture of him with his niece, Margaret. It is dated 1917 when she was about 18 months old and he was a boy of 13.
A much later photo shows him in his Coast Guard uniform with three hash marks on the sleeve signifying 12 years of service, possibly taken around 1940.

 

Gerald married Dorothy Proudlock in August of 1944 in New York City where they would make their home. He retired from the Coast Guard about 1953 with 25 years of service. He went to work for Chase Manhattan Bank as a security guard and subsequently retired again in 1961. He and Dorothy then moved to Miami, Florida where he later died in 1974.

 

Family Influences

 

Of the three sons born to Ella and Lee, only Gerald and Floyd married - and only Floyd had children. My aunt Margaret was the first girl born into the family and her parents intended to name her Mary Margaret – a name that honored both of her grandmothers. A few days after her birth, her name was officially changed to Margaret Ellen – still honoring her grandmothers but with a name that grandmother Ella approved of! This influence was repeated when my father Carl was born. He was to have been named Carl Leroy but again, a few days after his birth and following grandfather Lee’s sudden death, his name was changed to Carl D - not an initial D with a period after it, but just the letter D as in his grandfather’s name.

Ella later acknowledged her son and daughter-in-law’s original choices for their children’s names when she presented each of her grandchildren with a hand-made quilt. On each of the quilts she stitched their names as originally chosen by their parents. Margaret’s quilt was later damaged beyond repair and subsequently lost; Carl’s quilt survives to this day:

The photo on the left shows the full quilt and on the right are the personalized squares that read: “Carl Leroy Arnett from Grandma 1924”. The square above “Carl” contains “Birth Nov 2nd 1917”.

As mentioned earlier, Margaret and Carl were extremely close to their grandmother. Margaret would often spend summers with her grandmother. When he was in high school, Carl would regularly drive his father’s truck to Rossburg on Friday night after he got out of school. He would spend the night with his grandmother and return to Dayton the next day with a load of fresh eggs, produce, and other foods that would be sold at his parent’s delicatessen.

 

The Home is Sold

Sometime in 1953 my great grandmother’s health declined to the point where she could no longer live alone and a decision was made to place her in a nursing home. The major contributing factor was a fall she suffered in her home. 
It is said she stood on the seat of her rocking chair to wind a clock on a shelf and then fell, either breaking her hip or seriously injuring it. Her son Floyd and his wife Glendora became responsible for the disposal of her home and belongings. There was an estate sale at the home to liquidate everything possible. It was reported that in preparing for the sale, someone found an old gun in the attic and it discharged, blowing a large hole in a potentially valuable photograph of old Rossburg settlers. Here are a couple of photos from the sale of the household goods, they were probably taken by my grandmother, Glendora. The first picture shows the set-up prior to the start of the sale. The home is on the left side of the photo with the end of the back porch showing; the barn is at the right side.

This next photo was taken with the sale already underway. The rear of the home is partially visible and shows the roofline covering the back porch. In the center of the photo is a group of large chifferobes or wardrobes for clothing.

Homes built in that period typically did not have built-in closets in the bedrooms. The small structure with a light roof to the left of the wardrobes is the cold cellar.

My grandfather was not a particularly sentimental man and did not make a great effort to identify and set aside family heirlooms other than a few small items. It is likely that my grandmother Glendora was responsible for salvaging the few family mementoes that made it away from the sale. Things of hers that have been passed along to me are: a charcoal portrait of her family, a clock, a small folding wall shelf, two small forks from her stove (her “meat forks”), some lapel pins from her sons, and a family bible.

Following the estate sale, the home was sold and subsequently demolished. Given that the home possibly dated back to the 1890’s, was of questionable condition and had no indoor plumbing, there has to be some understanding of the decision to tear it down. It was not historically significant and could not have the stability of nearby brick and stone homes. None of this changes my feelings of nostalgia and loss when I think of this lady, her home, and my early childhood visits.

 

 

Final Photos

 

Ella’s sons Floyd and Gerald visited their mother sometime in 1958-1959 before her death. The first photo is with
Gerald, dated 1958, and the second one is with Floyd in 1959.

 

 

Mary Ellen “Ella” Arnett died on August 9, 1959 at the age of 89. She was buried at the Old Brock Cemetery in York Township, Ohio next to her husband Lee and eldest son Roy.

Author’s notes:
Ella’s grandson and my father - Carl, died in 2001, shortly before his 84th birthday. Ella’s granddaughter and my aunt - Margaret Arnett Bradley recently celebrated her 99th birthday, visiting with her family in the Forth Worth / Dallas area before returning to her home in Media, PA, a village outside of Philadelphia. Margaret is in excellent health and lives independently in a 3rd-floor, walk-up apartment. In addition to weekly visits to a nearby senior center for weaving and other activities, she enjoys a social circle of “younger” retired ladies with frequent outings for shopping, dining, and entertainments.

James Arnett
 November 2014