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Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Hardware Salesman and the Widow

Elizabeth Houston Row

     My great grandmother's life was marked by many episodes of pain and loss. But despite the loneliness and grief visited upon her, she bore her troubles with a dignity and a determination to persevere that I have always admired. Two years ago a wrote a series of articles about her life, beginning with this one.
     One of the most trying periods of her life occurred during 1881-83, when a series of deaths in the family struck her with hammer-like blows. In October 1881 her infant son, little Robert Alexander Row, died at eight months. He was placed in a four dollar coffin and laid to rest in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery at Greenfield. Lizzie's father, George Washington Houston of Rockbridge County, grieved with her and sent her a poem written by a relative entitled "A Child in Heaven." Four months later George Houston died of pneumonia, deeply in debt by mourned by all who knew him.
     The following spring Lizzie's husband of seven years and four months died on April 18, 1883. George Washington Estes Row was only thirty nine years old. My great grandmother was now left alone to care for her three surviving children and her stepson, manage a 363 acre farm and as administratrix sort out the complications of her late husband's estate. The estate sale was not a great success and Lizzie had to pay a great many bills with money that was not yet in hand.
     Despite these difficulties, she did indeed begin to pay these creditors and continued to do so until she had discharged her obligations. (Please note that all images may be clicked for larger viewing)

Wm. H. Russell invoice to G.W.E. Row, 29 July 1881

     William Hoge Russell (1825-1899) was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania. He worked at several occupations, including the dry goods business, in his home state and West Virginia before arriving in Fredericksburg in 1866. Before he opened his own hardware store he partnered with merchant Albert Burnley Botts, as seen by the receipt below (signed by Edgar M. Young, Botts's brother in law).

Russell & Botts invoice to G.W.E. Row, 6 Dec. 1876

     Like my great grandfather, W.H. Russell was an active Mason. In fact, they were brothers at the Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4. Below is a dues receipt given to George W.E. Row in 1880 by Edgar Mantlebert Crutchfield.

1880 receipt for lodge dues to George W.E. Row

     In the months following George Row's death, his widow struggled to fulfill her duties as mother, farmer and administratrix. She began to pay of the debts of the Row estate and in return received the warm thanks of a number of merchants who had kindly and patiently waited for their money.
     Not so with Mr. Russell.

Wm. H. Russell letter to Lizzie Row

     On April 16, 1884 Russell wrote this letter to my great grandmother, whose husband had been his lodge brother and a long time business customer:

Mrs. G.W.E. Row, Administratrix, 
            Last October I mailed to you at Brockville my account against the late G.W.E. Row & since then I have heard nothing from you, though I learn other accounts have been paid months ago.
           Should I not learn something satisfactory in a few days I will have to bring suit against the estate for my account. 
                                                                       Yours Respectfully, 
                                                                             Wm. H. Russell

Lizzie Row's reply to William Russell

     The very next day Lizzie Row replied to Russell's brusquely worded threat. This draft of her letter survives.

Yours of the 16th also of the 12th duly rec'd. The latter I did not answer at the time as I did not have the means to pay you then. It is only one yr. since the sad change in our little home. I have not settled with half the creditors & with one exception you are the only one who seems urgent, but I hope to be able to pay all my husband's debts in full. I now enclose you a check for 35 for which please send me a receipt. 

Lizzie Row's check to William Russell

Russell's receipt to Lizzie Row

     Fifteen years later William Hoge Russell's obituary appeared in The Daily Star, in which he was lauded as "an upright Christian gentleman."
     Well, that may have been so. But I doubt they sought the opinion of Lizzie Houston Row.


  1. As I have researched my family tree I have learned several things about Mr. Russel that leave a bad impression. I am glad someone put him in his place.

  2. Thank you for your very candid comment, Mr. Watson.