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Friday, November 2, 2012

Mary Houston

Mary Houston, 1885

 She was a beautiful child.
     Reading and writing about my long departed relatives is often like returning to a story you have read before but you keep going back to it with the illogical hope that perhaps this time the ending might turn out differently. I have wanted that for Mary. Devoted, vivacious, lovely Mary. You deserved to have been spared.
     Mary Alexander Houston was born on December 16, 1882 in Rockbridge County at Red House, the stately home of her mother's people, the Alexanders. Mary was the youngest of four daughters born to Finley and Grace Houston. The year before Mary was born her fifteen month old sister Grace Agnes had died. Finley and his family were living at Red House then.
     In 1885 Finley was named quartermaster at VMI and the Houstons moved to the house provided to them on campus. Mary and her sisters were well educated during these years. They first were taught at a school run by Jenny Letcher, daughter of the former governor of Virginia. Then for a time they attended the Ann Smith Academy in Lexington, where their aunt Lizzie (my great grandmother) went to school in the 1860s. The story goes that Finley became dissatisfied with the principal at Ann Smith and withdrew the girls. They finished up at Lexington High School (Mary's sister Bruce went on to graduate from Longwood College in Farmville).
      Finley and Grace never had any sons, so the Houston girls benefited from their father's supplements to their education. Finley taught the girls how to shoot, fish, ride horses and so on. Mary also became an avid photographer and I am told by her granddaughter that she has glass plate negatives made by Mary. She and her sisters were beautiful girls from a family of some social standing in Lexington, but this did not prevent them from indulging in tomboyish mischief. On one occasion, while visiting at Red House, a plot was hatched to have a little fun that crept beyond the bounds of ladylike decorum. Bruce, Annette and Mary climbed the tree next to the house and crawled through a second story window to the room where their grandmother's trunk was stored. They dressed up in the clothes they found in it, including Mrs. Alexander's wedding dress, and shinnied back down the tree. When discovered by their grandmother, the Houston sisters were astride the fence in her lovely clothes, pretending they were riding horses.

Mary paddling on the North River

Mary, left, with sister Annette

     In 1899 the Houstons moved to "Clifton," the fine old home across the North River from Lexington. The following year Finley resigned as quartermaster at VMI and became president of Gazette Publishing, which put out the Lexington Gazette. One upside of their father's new career was that the social doings of the Houston girls frequently appeared in the society pages of the newspaper.

Mary, sitting at right, with cadets (VMI Archives)

Mary and Annette on the internet, 1899 style

Mary's letter to aunt Lizzie Row, 1902

       In the summer of 1902 Mary wrote an epic fifteen page letter to her aunt Lizzie Row in Spotsylvania. She described in almost cinematic terms the recent wedding of her sister Bruce at Clifton. She also mentioned her visit to Spotsylvania and fretted about Lizzie's health and then made a sassy crack about Dr. W.A. Harris: "You don't know how sorry I am to know you are not well again--I think I'll have to go back out there and punch that doctor's head--he's too good looking anyway and a black eye would be just the thing for the old guy." Mary then goes on to ask about Lizzie's stepson Abbie Row and his family, who were living next to Lizzie at Greenfield, and also about my grandfather Horace and his sister Mabel. All of this is done in a style that crackles with the energy of her personality. When finished she added this note to the head of the letter: "Whew! I pity you the job of reading all this--wouldn't read it myself for five dollars and fifty cents."

Mary Houston, seated at left

Mary Houston, far left

     In September 1905 Mary's other sister Annette married Benjamin Harlow at Clifton. The family assembled on the lawn for the picture below, which Annette sent to my great grandmother. Mary is standing at center behind her parents. To the left are her sister Bruce with husband William Davis. Annette and Ben Harlow are at right.

The Houstons at Clifton, 1905

     Two years later, Mary's mother died. Mary was still unmarried at age twenty five and continued to live with her father at Clifton. She was popular, beautiful and the belle of many social events but seemed in no great hurry to wed. She was devoted to her father and helped him manage Clifton. There was one fellow who was special, however. Americus Frederic White, six years older than Mary, was working his way through Washington and Lee College. He and Mary saw each other frequently. One winter day, when the North River had frozen over, Mary and Fred went skating. Mary took a tumble and Fred, who was close behind her, sliced off a large swath of her skirt with his skates. Unwilling to stand up and compromise her dignity, Mary commanded Fred to march up the hill to the house and retrieve the sewing basket so that she could make the necessary repairs.
     Once Fred completed his studies in Lexington, he was ready to begin his career. For the time being he was forced to do so without Mary, who still was not ready to marry. Fred gave her a bluebird pin and asked her to send it to him when she had changed her mind. Several years later thirty one year old Mary sent the pin to Fred. They were married at Clifton on April 2, 1914. Mary's bridesmaid was Mattie Harman, whose father was the State Treasurer of Virginia.

Wedding invitation of Mary and Fred

     Fred and Mary moved to Donora, Pennsylvania where Fred worked in the steel business. Just as she had done at Clifton, Mary assumed responsibility for running the household. In early 1916 Mary became pregnant with their first child. In the last known photograph of Mary White, she is seen holding Hunter, the son of her cousin Dr. Oscar Hunter McClung, who was married to Mattie Harman's sister Eugenia.

Mary White and Hunter McClung

     Mary went into labor on November 30, 1916. It was a difficult delivery. "They used instruments for a short while," as Fred White delicately put it in a letter to Finley. A ten pound girl was born on December 1. Their daughter, whom Fred named Mary Houston White, would live for almost ninety five years. Mary died a week later on December 8, 1916.

Headstone of Mary Houston White

     Mary's body was brought back to Lexington and she was buried in Stonewall Jackson Cemetery. Her father wrote a letter to his sister Lizzie in Spotsylvania two months later: "...I have been so crushed over Mary's sudden and to me entirely unexpected death that I have not been able to talk about it...The funeral was one of the largest I ever saw. Mary had so many friends in all parts of the county and the flowers nearly filled our parlor."

     In 1921 Fred White married Mattie Harman. They had two children of their own. To little Mary Houston White they were her true brother and sister and she never referred to them as step brother or step sister. By chance Mary's path and mine crossed last year. That chapter of the story can be read here.


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