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Monday, June 27, 2011

"I can heartily commend our daughter to you"

Lizzie Houston Row, 1875

     On April 29, 1854 Mary Elizabeth ("Lizzie") Houston was born at Mount Pleasant, a 330 acre farm in Rockbridge County northwest of Lexington. By the time of Lizzie's birth, Mount Pleasant had been the home of the Willsons--her mother's people-- for 100 years. Annette Willson married George Houston in 1848 and after their daughter was born the farm would remain in the Houston family for another 100 years.

George and Annette Houston

     George Houston was a farmer, slave owner and justice of the peace. Like his father, George was a devout Presbyterian and served for many years as an elder at New Providence Church. His early education was acquired there and helped prepare him for entry into Washington College, from which he graduated in 1840. In the 1870s George Houston and his son Finley introduced to Rockbridge County the Aultman-Taylor line of steam powered farm equipment.

Ann Smith Academy

     Like her mother before her, Lizzie Houston was sent to the Ann Smith Academy for her education. The Academy was a school for girls of well to do families that operated in Lexington for 100 years. Teachers like Fanny Exall and Fanny Witherspoon made a particular impression on Lizzie and she kept their photographs in her album. There is a well known photograph of Stonewall Jackson's grave taken in 1866. Surrounding his enclosed gravesite are students of Ann Smith Academy. While Lizzie herself does not appear in the picture, these girls would have been her friends and classmates.

Grave of Stonewall Jackson, 1866

     Lizzie continued to live at Mount Pleasant after completing her education at Ann Smith. By now the Houston household also included brothers Finley (1852-1926) and William (1864-1946) and sister Annie (1866-1902). Lizzie had matured into a very pretty young woman and she began to attract the attention of the young men of her neighborhood as well as students of Washington and Lee College. Her suitors included Will Austin, Arthur Ott, R.C. McKenney and Will Moore. She kept their photographs, poems and letters in her trunk all her life. These young men would have of course visited her under highly chaperoned circumstances. Any of them would have likely made a good match for Lizzie. But in 1874 she met someone previously outside her knowledge from a faraway county called Spotsylvania.
     As you would expect Lizzie's mother Annette had a great many relations living in Rockbridge, including her cousin James E.A. Gibbs. Gibbs was a well known inventor of an early model sewing machine and lived in a fine house at Raphine, not far from Mount Pleasant. At this time Gibbs' daughter Florence was seeing Ben Rawlings, originally of Spotsylvania. They would marry in 1876. Ben's brother Zachary lived near Raphine and operated the Osceola mill. Zachary and Bettie Rawlings were frequently visited by her brother, George Washington Estes Row, who had a business venture with Ben and was also working on a patent for an improved railroad car coupling. In the natural course of events George Row would have become acquainted with the extended family of Florence Gibbs. This would have included the Houstons of Mount Pleasant and in particular their twenty year old daughter Lizzie.
      George Row was quite different from the young men she had come to know so far. At thirty one he was eleven years older than Lizzie when they met in 1874. George was a veteran of the Civil War, a father, a widower and was engaged in business in both Spotsylvania and Rockbridge. Within the past three years he had been rocked by a succession of tragedies--the deaths of his wife, daughter and mother. In the melancholy letters he wrote to Lizzie early in their courtship it is easy to see that he still had not gotten over their loss. When he met Lizzie he was instantly smitten and set out at once to compete for her affection with matrimony in mind.
     Lizzie was not so sure.
     In a letter written by George to Lizzie in October 1874 it is clear that he has already pursued her for some time and that she has broken off the relationship. He pleads with her: "Can I not persuade you, yes beseech you, to reconsider the matter?...I have but the hope the fond, fond hope (how I cling to it) that I may yet be favored with your love and you may again smile upon me."
     By January 1875 it is evident that George had agreed to a condition laid down by Lizzie that they would have no contact for six months in order that she might think about things. George breaches that agreement by writing this letter and by way of explanation tells her that he intends to build upon and improve his farm in Spotsylvania, Sunshine. "I hope you may see the propriety of this course and approve of it--for it is for your welfare that I have to heart...My feelings towards you have not changed and are more ardent than ever."
     Lizzie's reply of January 7, 1875 marks a turning point in their relationship and gives George cause for hope: "I am sorry it has not suited your business arrangements to give me the time that I desired to reflect more seriously upon a matter of such importance, however your reasons for doing so are satisfactory and I am now prepared to say your affections are fully reciprocated."
     George, it goes without saying, is elated. "Your dear letter is just to hand bringing me the glad tidings that there is one in this wide world how loves me and is willing to share my fate with me for good or bad. Tell me Lizzie when I shall come and when you will make my heart gladdest by taking me for your protector for life...With my best love and a dozen and a half kisses I am as ever, yours affectionately, George."

George to Lizzie, 15 January 1875

     For the next few months their relationship continued, but not without a few rough patches. Lizzie was still not entirely sold on the idea of marring George Row, and her girlish ambivalence was a source of some discomfort to him. In a letter from March 1875 George wrote: "Hope you had a pleasant time with Mr. Moore [Will Moore, one of Lizzie's previous suitors]. By the way I am rather jealous of him as it seemed you were very willing for me to leave after he came and your objection to wearing my ring in his presence also seemed as if there was an unnecessary bashfulness. Now don't thing I do this to chide you but I think of these things while absent from you and it bothers very much..."
     Fortunately for their romance (not to mention for future generations of Rows) Lizzie overcame her skittishness regarding her commitment to George. In September 1875 George sent a letter addressed to her father and mother, asking for her hand in marriage. George Houston's reply begins with a certain hesitancy and reserve: " I must be permitted to say that I had rather that the acquaintance had been of longer standing." But Mr. Houston quickly warms to his subject and adds: "Nevertheless I am free to say that I esteemed you from our first acquaintance and was favorably impressed with your character and manners. And I am happy to say also that I can heartily commend our daughter to you for her upright character and strict integrity. And may the blessing of God be with you all the days of your lives!"

George Row to George Houston

George Houston to George Row, p.1

George Houston to George Row, p.2

     On the morning of December 14, 1875 George and Lizzie were married at New Providence Episcopal Church by Reverend E.D. Junkin. The flowers that Lizzie wore around her neck and that George wore on his coat were kept by Lizzie in this envelope:


     After the wedding George and Lizzie rode to Staunton where they took the train to Fredericksburg. From there they endured a long, cold carriage ride to Greenfield. George's sister Nannie was cleaning up the floor of the main house where George's son Abbie had been in a whittling contest with Patrick the adopted son of Lucius M. Estes and his wife, who worked as caretakers at Greenfield. They lived in the log weaving house and George and Lizzie gratefully sat by the fire tended by Mrs. Estes. Greenfield would be their home for the next four years or so, until George finished building their house at Sunshine. There Lizzie would live for the next fifty two years.

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