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Thursday, July 7, 2011

"The sad change in our little home"

Elizabeth Houston Row

     With the death of her husband George, a whole new world of cares and obligations became the new reality for Lizzie Row. Before this tragedy Lizzie had been responsible for keeping house and raising her three small children as well as her stepson Abbie, who spent much of his time at Greenfield with his aunt Nan. George had died leaving no will, so the first order of business was to qualify as administratrix of his estate, which she did on May 7, 1883.

     When he died, George W.E. Row owed a great deal of money to a number of businesses and individuals. The success of his enterprise depended wholly on the cash flow generated by the saw mill
and the farm. With his departure this money ceased to come in, but his debts remained and Lizzie needed to raise money to satisfy the creditors of the estate. An estate sale was advertised for September 25 and was conducted by Fredericksburg auctioneer and Row friend James Roach.

Notice of George Row's estate sale

From purchases made at estate sale

     The estate sale did not meet expectations. The equipment, tools, buildings, livestock, lumber and so forth were appraised at $2,748 but the sale brought in only $558. Lizzie contracted with Fox Brothers, a Baltimore firm dealing in West Indian cooperage, to buy the thousands of shooks (wooden parts made in the construction of barrels) still lying in the mill yard. Benjamin Bowering, from whom George Row had bought the steam engine and boiler used in the saw mill, offered to help Lizzie to find a buyer for those items.

Fox Brothers to Lizzie Row August 1883

Benjamin Bowering to Lizzie April 1885

     As she was able, Lizzie paid the debts of the estate. Many creditors, like Fredericksburg grocers Magrath and Chesley, graciously thanked Lizzie when she was able to send money. Some, like Dr. Thomas Finney, patiently waited two years or more to receive payment.

Magrath & Chesley to Lizzie June 1884

Dr. Finney receipt to Lizzie February 1885

     However, not all business owners were willing to bide their time. A year after George's death, hardware dealer William H. Russell wrote a threatening letter to Lizzie: "Last October I mailed to you at Brockville my account against the late G.W.E. Row and since then have heard nothing from you... Should I not learn something satisfactory in a few days I will have to bring suit against the estate for my account."

William H. Russell to Lizzie April 1884

     Lizzie's reply to Mr. Russell, dated April 17, 1884, gives us a glimpse into the emotional stress the young widow was under and also shows the steely resolve beneath the surface: "...It is only one year tomorrow since the sad change in our little home. I have not settled with half the creditors and with one exception you are the only one that seems urgent, but I hope to pay all my husband's debts in full..."

Draft of Lizzie's reply to William H. Russell April 1884

     In the midst of her many tribulations one good deed was done for Lizzie just four months after George's death. His sister Martha traveled from Lynchburg to Spotsylvania in August 1883 in order to discuss a proposition that would be of future benefit to Lizzie's children and at the same time double the size of Sunshine farm. In an act of considerable generosity Martha and James Williams gave Lizzie the 146 1/2 acres of Martha's Greenfield legacy inherited from her father Absalom. The deed named Lizzie as trustee for her three children as well as her stepson Abbie. This enlarged Sunshine to its present size. Martha wrote a letter to Lizzie and urged her to record the deed "as soon as possible and so secure the land for your children and Abbie."

Martha Williams to Lizzie August 1883

Martha Williams to Lizzie August 1883

     But administering her late husband's estate and dealing with creditors were not the only new responsibilities Lizzie took on. With the gift of land from Martha Williams Lizzie also had a 342 acre farm to manage. To help her with this in the first years after George's death, Lizzie signed sharecropping agreements with two persons well known to her. In 1884 she contracted with Atwell Young, a former employee of her husband. In 1885 she hired longtime friend of the Rows, Lucius M. Estes.

Lizzie's contract with Atwell Young

Lizzie's contract with Lucius M. Estes

     By 1885 the stress of her many obligations had become an intolerable burden for my great grandmother. She thought she had reached the end of her endurance. Lizzie did not own Sunshine outright; half was still considered part of George Row's estate and the other half was held in trust for her children. She enlisted the aid of attorney Jonathan T. Goolrick to help her find relief in the court. Goolrick filed a petition on her behalf to William S. Barton, judge of the Circuit Court of Fredericksburg. Lizzie sought the permission of the court to sell both tracts of land so that she could move to "Rockbridge where she has relatives and friends now order to have herself and her children maintained and supported. Your oratrix cannot maintain and support herself and her children from proceeds and income from said farm..."

From Lizzie's petition to the Circuit Court

     Depositions were taken from Oscar B. Todd, county surveyor John Smith and William A. Stephens. They testified that she lacked the wherewithal to successfully farm Sunshine and that the property could not be "rented out for anything of value without destroying its value and doing great damage." All three emphasized that selling the property in order to support the children was the only logical alternative available.
     Jonathan Goolrick was appointed special commissioner to oversee the auction sale of Sunshine. On November 28, 1885 he resigned and T.A. Harris was named as his replacement. For reasons that remain unknown the sale never took place and Lizzie and her family continued to live at Sunshine. The farm remains in family hands to this day.

1 comment:

  1. Pat. This is incredible documentation of a series of events seen all too often during this latter part of the century. Had GWE been an actual landowner, settled on by his father as was custom, I doubt he would have been driven to extend himself so far to establish his businesses. I'll still never understand ARow's decision NOT to settle land on his son. I think it was a pivotal decision to the Row family. Well done and fascinating as always. D