The Wilderness (Home of George and Alice Welsh Strawbridge)

The Wilderness (Philadelphia Home of George and Alice Welsh Strawbridge)

The text below was written by my mother, Mary Lowber White (born Mary Lowber Sailer, and later Mary Lowber Knight), who lived from 1906 to 1992. The text contains her recollections of childhood at “The Wilderness,” the Philadelphia home of her grandparents, Dr George Strawbridge and Alice Welsh Strawbridge. The photograph at the top of this page shows The Wilderness.

The Wilderness — by Mary L. Knight

I do not think a first recollection is a possible reality. Certainly it isn’t for me. It is as though my grandmother’s house had always been there—and she and my grandfather, and my aunt and uncle and everyone else who lived there had always been there too. First there was the wide veranda with my grandmother sitting in her rocking chair. Of course if it was summer she would be in a white dress—she always wore either black or white—I don’t remember her ever dressed with even any touch of color—sometimes she bundled up and rocked even in winter—but then she would be dressed in black. My aunt was the prima donna of the household. She was beautiful, really beautiful. Her features were perfect, and there was a wistful, haunting look about her face. Her mother had and always would spoil her to the limit of her ability, but the rest of the family endured her high-handed imperious ways in resentment—mostly silent. My uncle would give a lowering stare in her direction when she sailed—or floated might be a better word— into dinner close to half an hour late.

This was possible because dinner at my grandmother’s house was, in those days, a stately occasion. It was announced and then after all but my aunt had assembled soup was brought in a large soup tureen by the waitress Annie Connor, then ladled into soup plates and passed. Annie McGill, the cook, was keeping dinner hot on the coal stove in the kitchen which was a hallway and two rooms (the pantry and the maids’ dining room) removed from the dining room. You can imagine that under these circumstances my aunt could arrive 20 minutes to half an hour late and still be able to have an adequate dinner. The food at my grandmother’s house was always the most delicious imaginable. There was the large garden right on the place and in summer I doubt if anyone anywhere in the world had more delicious vegetables. I remember especially tiny creamed asparagus. I don’t know how John Reagan, the gardener, grew it. I have never even seen anything like it anywhere else.

My grandmother and grandfather lived in a large Swiss Chalet style house. It had been built for her by her father on about 12 acres of land. On either side of this house he had built comparable houses for her two sisters, Aunt Lilly Young and Aunt Ellen Stokes. But these houses were of different styles. My grandmother’s house had a large hallway that went from the front door straight back to a door that opened onto the orchard, not the back door. On one side of this hall were three parlors. The front parlor was for my Aunt’s exclusive use. The other 2 parlors were for anyone who wanted a private place to sit or visit. Then there was the large billiard room, so called because of the billiard table in the center. But this was where the family sat. It had a large fireplace and various comfortable chairs and sofas. It had a great many windows, by one of which my grandmother had a knitting machine. I remember watching her knit socks on it during World War I. She also had her desk in a corner by a window. There were bookcases full of books that lined the back wall and above this there was a very large model of a sailing ship. All in all it was a room to enjoy and have companionship, though my aunt more often sat in her private parlor. Upstairs were the bedrooms, but the bathrooms, two that were side by side, were in a separate wing. To reach them you had to go down a short flight of stairs, and beyond them was a large room known as the sewing room. Here Jane Weir held sway. She sewed continually and made all the clothes my Grandmother and Aunt wore—always the same pattern and, of course, always white or black. This was also a playroom for us when we were children.

I remember our great excitement when Uncle Welsh bought us a doll-size electric stove. We made biscuits on it, under careful supervision. Naturally they were the most delicious I ever ate. On the the third floor were the maids’ rooms. These rooms were right under the roof with ceilings 6′ high. Here slept Annie Connor the waitress, Jane Weis the dressmaker, Annie McGill the cook and Mary Kilean, the laundress. Also I dimly remember someone named Josephine, but whether she lived in or not I’m not sure. There was no bathroom on the 3rd floor, but one in the basement. This was not a hardship but quite acceptable, even a plus. The one I remember the best and with the greatest pleasure is Jennie Walker. She was a marvelous Scottish woman who came to help several days a week. What stories she could tell! I can’t remember one of them but I remember the excitement of her tales, often romances concerning herself, and the inflections of her voice and her wonderful gestures—what a woman! She adored my aunt. I remember her saying when one of my Aunt’s love affairs had gone on the rocks, “Nothing keeps her down,” and she made a fist and raised it high to signify my Aunt’s resilient qualities.

“The Wilderness” was the name of this fabulous place where my grandparents lived with Uncle Welsh and Aunt (their two oldest children—my mother and Uncle Jack had both married and had families of their own). My aunt [Anne West Strawbridge] was an artist. Two weeks before her birth her 2 year old sister had died. Consequently her parents, and especially her mother left, as they thought, no stone unturned to guard her against harm or sickness, or in fact any kind of distress. If she was taken outside even in fairly pleasant weather, she was bundled up in layers of blankets to guard against any possibility of catching cold. It is a wonder that in her baby helplessness she did not suffer heat prostration. But she was always pale and delicate.

When she was old enough to understand she was repeatedly warned against touching anything that might be crawling with germs. She was a timid, shy and apprehensive child. The idea that germs were everywhere, to be invisibly lurking on anything she might touch was terrifying. When she grew older the fear of germs obsessed her, and she did many strange things to avoid them. She could not touch a newspaper so John Nutter, the man who did all the work on her place—and made for her beautiful vegetable and flower gardens—held the newspaper up to the window and my aunt could in this way read it, telling him when to turn the pages. However all that happened after her parents died and she lived in her own small house alone with 2 maids. When my aunt was a child (her name was Anne West but we always called her Aunt) she was sent to school, but she did not like it. It was all strange, and she was very shy, so she was allowed to stay at home. My mother had not gone to school till she was twelve, but being a very different temperament from my aunt, and of course being more strictly brought up, she had loved it. But my aunt never went more than a day or two, so it is hard to say if she would have ever liked it or not. Certainly she could not have reigned the supreme princess as she did in her home.

The home where she lived was called “The Wilderness,” and it was a complete world as far as she was concerned. Her father was a prominent eye doctor, her mother the daughter of John Welsh, one of the most influential men in Philadelphia. On either side of The Wilderness— a 12-acre estate with barns, horses, vegetable gardens, rose gardens, a staff for the barn, the gardens and the house—lived her 2 aunts with their children. One, the Stokes, had 4 boys and a girl. The other, Aunt Lilly, had two boys. Her grandfather lived in a large house across Wissahickon Ave., and there too lived summers her Smith cousin, though his grandmother, her grandfather’s first wife, was not the same as hers. Hers was Mary Lowber. John Welsh’s first wife was Rebecca Miller. My mother had beautiful golden hair and very blue eyes. She was forthright and determined with none of the wistful haunting quality of my aunt. Her brother Jack was a couple of years older, and Welsh was 3 and a half years younger.

My mother was 8 years old when Aunt was born, so she was the only girl for eight years [except for the sister who died young], in an almost private world of 2 brothers and 6 boy cousins. One of her bitterest childhood memories is the fact all these male relatives scorned her as a girl. The phrase “She’s only a girl” rankled with her all her life. She had no coquettish ways or feminine wiles but tried to meet these boys on equal ground. Her hair was cut like a boy’s and she tried her best to play with them as an equal. To no avail—”She’s only a girl” put her at the bottom of that particular totem pole. She greatly admired her oldest brother, Jack, but he in no way returned this admiration. He, when he became a young man, was a great beau and much admired by the ladies. But my mother was never his type at all. At parties he was outgoing and jovial, quite the life of any gathering of friends but the opposite in his boyhood family.

As my aunt grew older she showed a marked talent as an artist, so she took the the great step of enrolling as a pupil in The Academy of Fine Arts. This was a new and fascinating life for her. She made close friendships, Miss Alice Stoddard, who later became a well-known artist and portrait painter, was one and Miss Beatrice Fenton, who became a most famous sculptress, was another. There was Elizabeth Bishop, considered at that time the most talented of all, but she had very little money and consequently often not enough to eat, so she died very young, probably due to malnutrition. But Miss Stoddard (who later married Mr. Pearson, also an artist) and Miss Fenton were lifelong friends. To further her art career my aunt was given her own studio built on the place. This was a brick building the size of one very large room, the north side having windows that covered the top half of the wall. It was kept locked! I remember our great desire was to see inside—Never! but occasionally we would boldly climb high enough to look through the bottom of those high windows. Not that we ever saw much, but the excitement was intense.

My aunt was also a marvelous storyteller. When we were young, my sister Alice and I often went to “Granny’s” for the week-end. We came and went by train, getting off at Upsal Station and walking a good bit of the way across “Wilderness” fields. In the back field were my Aunt’s ponies. These were quite small ponies and she bred them. I don’t know exactly why except that she loved horses and ponies, and anything she wanted she could have if her mother could give it to her. So she had a field of ponies and made numerous painting of various ones and just enjoyed having them. In the evening after we were in bed she would come up and sitting at the foot of the bed she told us stories. They were wonderful stories about little magic people and exciting situations. Samantha was the little girl in the stories and later my Aunt wrote a book with her as the heroine, but of course although clever, the stories had lost the appeal of being told while we all sat in that dimly lit room, my aunt perched at the foot of the bed and her questions, “Oh, dear, what could she do?” or “What do you think happened next?” asked in a voice that heightened our suspense. We were totally agog with apprehension and curiosity.

Uncle Welsh owned and rode race horses. I remember often going to watch him. He raced over a steeplechase course, which meant many fences and, of course, up and down hills. He had a fabulous horse named Riverbreeze who generally won, so that the betting was always in his favor. I remember one race where Uncle Welsh apparently won, then was disqualified because he had jumped the wrong fence. What a blow. I heard him say, “I hate to see all that money burnt up by flags.” Later I said to mother “It is foolish to buy so many flags.” She looked at me completely exasperated. “There weren’t too many flags. He jumped the wrong fence, not the one marked,” she said. I did not understand her then, but I knew enough to say nothing more.

Uncle Welsh was very handsome, but he was quite silent–almost gloomy. He had deep-set blue eyes and short-cropped golden hair. His figure was slender and wiry and he was a magnificent rider. He was more reserved than his exuberant outgoing brother who was such the center of attraction among his friends and at parties. Uncle Welsh grew up next door to his Stokes cousins, 4 boys and a girl. The girl, Frances, was lovely. She had dark wavy hair, and blue eyes and a charming smile and laugh. Unfortunately she and Uncle Welsh fell in love. For him he thought there was and never could be anyone else, and she more or less felt the same. But both families were completely against such a marriage. First cousins! Never! Naturally I do not know what happened, but there was a rumor the families finally gave in and urged them to marry. But they did not. Why? Who knows? Perhaps they themselves had come to realize such a union could not have been a happy one. At any rate Frances eventually married a short, very wealthy man name Louis Clark.

Uncle Welsh did not marry till much later, a German girl he met on a ship on his way to Europe named Irene. But none of us ever saw her. She died at Saranac of consumption six months later. But when he was 42 he married again, a lovely dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who was 19 years his junior. They bought a large farm near Hatboro, Pennsylvania that had been the Estate of Governor Keith. At last Uncle Welsh was launched on a life he enjoyed. At one time it had been considered enough of a change to go from the center city to Mt. Airy for the summer, and for this reason the well-to-do families had homes in both places. With the large staff of servants it was then possible to maintain, such an arrangement was quite easy. My grandmother had this arrangement for quite a few years after she married, but eventually they gave up the city house entirely and lived at the “Wilderness” all year except for summer trips to the shore.

Uncle Jack had bad hay fever so the Jersey Coast was considered very beneficial for him. However, when my mother was about 16 her parents decided to have a summer place in Camden, Maine. In those days you could pick and choose your spot. Mountain or shore properties were available in choice and varied locations. My grandfather chose a beach front property about 3 miles out of town on the Belfast road. It had a beautiful beach, though more stones than sand, and a series of large rocks going out to sea making a small breakwater for the beach. Along these rocks was built a wooden walk, at the end of which were steps leading down to a dock, and beyond that was moored their sailing boat “The Sunbeam.” On the property they built a large house, the outside of which was grey wooden shingles. It had a huge veranda that went across the front and one side of the house.

From the time I was about 3 or 4 until I was around eight years old our whole family went there while my grandparents and Aunt travelled to Europe, generally staying several weeks in Switzerland, where my Aunt became a renowned mountain climber. In those days few women went in for dangerous sports, but she did—climbing to the top of the Matterhorn with her two guides Gabriel and Joseph, one of the first women to accomplish such a feat. As my Aunt was beautiful with large dark grey eyes and dark brown hair quite a few young men who were also climbing the mountains in Zermatt paid her attention, though it was stilted and reserved compared to what would considered attention today. She fell in love with one of them, Mr. Dwight. He never materialized beyond a name as far as I was concerned. Perhaps he visited her at the “Wilderness.” I know she occasionally went to spend a day with him in New York. But it all came to nothing, except that my Aunt now had an unfulfilled love affair in her background, as was all too often the case in those days when women had to be “protected.” It was not considered suitable for a lady to stand on her own two feet. Aunt now considered herself the heroine of a “Grand Passion.” Mr. Dwight had married a widow when he had seemed on the verge of proposing to Aunt. Why? Perhaps it was just so much easier. He and the widow both lived in New York. She was readily available and maybe, too, his courage deserted him at the thought of living up to such a romantic role as was expected of him.

However, Aunt had several love affairs after Mr. Dwight and oddly enough, even she and Mr. Dwight kept in touch with each other. She phoned him every summer before she went away, and then again when she came back. Once, years later when she was deeply unhappy due to the death of a man she was then very much in love with, he wrote desperate notes proving the power of mental telepathy. Apparently he sensed she was greatly troubled and needed help. He wrote “She has been in my mind continually all day. Pull getting very strong”…Next, “No sleep. Pull getting from strong to terrific—most since the “Rock” yet different. It seems now as if I might help her instead of getting help from her. This makes it worse.”

There is more. The dates of these notes exactly coincided with the death of Mr. Mitten, who Aunt considered the love of her life, a man who for many reasons she found totally fascinating. He seems to have been equally charmed by her and for several years they had an exciting and exhilarating love affair. Why? Part of the charm lay in the fact they were so totally different in their upbringing, family background and the life each had led. I can’t remember why he originally came to visit her, but I do know that on that first visit she told him to put on her galoshes, and sat down and stuck out each foot in turn while he struggled with a task totally new to him. He was intrigued. Miss Strawbridge was a real lady. Perhaps he had been used to less aristocratic women. She fell for him hook, line and sinker. A dynamic self-made man, successful and powerful in her city of Philadelphia. He consulted her on many of his projects, and often called her late at night. Sometimes Aunt would drive up to visit him at his place in the Poconos. She would go and return the same day but while she was there they had a lovely time together. One day he took her rowing. She offered to row, but he said, “No. My life is too valuable to risk having you at the oars.” A few days later he was rowing alone. The boat tipped over, and he was drowned. At the time his affairs at the PRT were under fire. He was being investigated. There was a suspicion he had tipped over the boat on purpose. But my aunt was sure this was not the case. She quoted his remarks about her not rowing to prove it. at his funeral she rode in the carriage with his son and the son’s wife. She was mentioned in the papers as the mysterious lady in black.

Aunt was devastated. Never again was she to fall so deeply in love. But Jennie Walker’s symbol of the strong fist rising above despair still described her. She now decided to write a book. She also decided to take up flying, and bought herself a helicopter and took lessons at Wings Field. Soon she was enjoying life again. She said she found flying the best possible substitute for climbing, now that she was too old for the mountains, but tragedy gave her flying a bad setback. One day she urged one of the pilots there — they all loved her — to go up in a trial spin. He resisted. She said, “Oh, go ahead,” urging him on gaily. At last he did, but for some unexplainable reason he hit some wires and was killed. It was an unreasonable and unexplainable tragedy. Something unexpected had gone wrong. [unclear where she wanted this last part to go in the text] My Aunt had love affairs of great proportions. For years she was in love with a Mr. Dwight. She had met him in the Swiss mountains. I do not know how diligently he pursued her, but the affair gave my Aunt all the romance she needed at the time. She used to meet him in New York—a museum would be the meeting place. Mr. Dwight was invariably late. My aunt waited. Then out of the blue he married a widow. My aunt was totally shocked. She had dallied with his proposals of marriage, always sure he would repeat them. He did for a while, but when the widow became his for the asking, he asked. “Why,” asked my aunt, “are widows so attractive to men?” Then I did not know the answer. Now I could give a long string of reasons. Of course it was after Mr. Dwight that she met Mr. Mitten, the man she called “the great love of my life.”