On 24 June 1864, I arrived in Blaineton, and was brought to the front parlor of Greybeal House, where I interviewed Maggie and Eli Smith
Janet: I’m so pleased that you two agreed to an interview.
Eli: Why not? It'll be an interesting change of pace being on the other end of an interview. (Chuckles) In fact, I’m finding it a bit intimidating.
Janet: Oh, I hope I’m not intimidating!
Maggie: I don’t believe you are.
Janet: Thank you, Maggie. Let’s get started, shall we? I understand you will be starting a school at Greybeal House.
Maggie: How did you find out? Did someone tell you?
Janet: Uh… yes.
Eli: It’s not a state secret, Maggie.
Janet: No, it isn’t. And don’t worry. The news isn’t common knowledge in town. Yet.
Eli: What paper did you say you were with?
Janet: The Squeaking Pips Weekly.
Eli: Clever name. Never heard of it, but clever name. Where are you located?
Janet: I publish in a remote part of New Jersey. (changes topic) Maggie, how did you decide to start a school in this beautiful old house?
Maggie: It’s a bit of a long story, but we recently found two girls on our property. They were homeless and hungry, so –
Eli (interrupts): So Maggie and Emily did what they always do. Invited ‘em in.
Maggie (to Eli): Well, it’s only right to do that. We’re called to love others as we love ourselves.
Eli: Yep. You two have so much love that Addie and Mary are now living here.
Maggie (explains to Janet): Emily fell in love with the girls. Nate, too.
Janet: Emily is your closest friend.
Maggie (smiles at her husband): Aside from Eli, yes. Nate is married to Emily. They have two children.
Eli: Four now, counting Addie and Mary.
Maggie: Do let me continue, Eli. (to Janet) Anyway, when we went to enroll the girls at Blaineton’s school we were told that colored children were no longer welcome there. Apparently, the School Board decreed that the races should be educated separately.
Eli: (rolls his eyes) Josiah Norton’s fault! He’s the Board’s president. Thinks he’s the biggest toad in the puddle. Actually, he’s a varmint of the first water.
Janet (writing): “Translation: Eli means Norton thinks he’s the most important person in town. Bit actually, he’s just a first-class creep.”
Maggie (disapprovingly): Eli!
Janet (continues): So the Blaineton School is for white children only now?
Maggie: Yes. And worse yet, the town is not providing funding for a colored school because there are only six children on Water Street.
Eli: Then Maggie and Emily learned that there was a private school operating on there.
Maggie: It was barely a school! The building it met in was on the verge of collapse, and the teacher was a young girl, who should have been in school rather than teaching it. So, after some discussion, we decided to start a private school for the children of Water Street –
Eli: Water Street is where most of Blaineton’s colored population lives.
Maggie: And that’s how we came to start a school here at Greybeal House.
Janet: So, you’re doing it yourselves? Do any of you have an experience in education?
Maggie: Well, it's fairly easy to start a school. People do it all the time, don't they, Eli?
Eli: Yeah. But some of 'em close two weeks after they open!
(Editor's note: At this point in time, it was still easy for anyone to start a school, even those without teaching experience. Many of these schools were small and catered to specific people, such as upper-class girls.)
Maggie: That won't be the case with us. We'll stay open. My sister-in-law was a teacher before she married my brother. And one of our household, Rosa Hamilton, wants to learn to be a teacher. We're excited and are making plans! We’ll teach basic subjects, but also offer opportunities for training – cookery, household management, carpentry –
Eli (interrupts): And journalism. Don't forget journalism. I hope we’ll have a couple of students learning the nuts and bolts at The Register.
Janet: You’re the editor-in-chief of the town’s newspaper, aren’t you, Eli?
Eli (beams): Yep. The Horace Greeley of the New Jersey hinterlands!
Maggie: Oh, do stop that, Eli. You’re an important man in our town, and one who has fulfilled his dream. (to Janet) He really has quite a voice in Blaineton.
Janet: What about you, Maggie?
Maggie: I? No. No, I prefer doing things quietly.
Janet: Starting a school for children of color is hardly a quiet thing, especially once word gets out. Do you think it will be controversial?
Maggie: It won’t cause much of a ruckus, I’m sure. Most people expect such a thing from me. They consider me eccentric.
Maggie: Oh, well... I... don't -
Eli (interrupts): I know why. She takes in strays. I’m a good example of that. I rolled into Blaineton, after some fine folks disagreed with an editorial and burned down my printing press out in Ohio. I was rootless, looking for a place to settle so I could start another paper. Then I saw this lovely little outbuilding on Maggie's property. Two stories. Room for a printing operation on the first floor and a bedroom on the second. I asked her if I could rent it. She said yes. (laughs) Do you know, I didn’t give her one penny for six whole months? And she didn’t say a word!
Maggie (smiles): I knew you’d make good on our agreement. Eventually.
Eli: Sweetheart, you have a habit of inviting in all manner of people in need, regardless of color – Emily and Nate when their place burned down. Carson and Grandpa when they were down on their luck. Matilda and Chloe, who were escaped slaves. And now Addie and Mary.
Maggie: Don’t forget Rosa. And I suppose Edward, too. But he’s was not down on his luck.
Eli: No. He just works for The Register and needed a place to live. Oh, and say, what about those folks from the insane asylum?
Maggie: Goodness! That was an emergency, and we got everyone settled elsewhere quickly.
Janet: Sounds like you practice what you preach, Maggie.
Maggie: I try to follow Jesus’ commandments to love God and love others. Love is so necessary. It’s what makes life worth living. It reveals itself in kindness and mercy and even justice.
Janet: I agree. I think if we made our decisions based on love, rather than on opinion, or expediency, or preconceived notions, the world would be a better place. I hope the town learns something from you, Maggie.
Eli: Don't worry. My wife is a powerful woman. She just doesn’t know it. Yet.
Janet: What makes you say that?
Eli: Because she really does love people. She really does care. And she’s fair, or she strives to be fair. And that’s powerful. She really could shape our town. In fact, she will shape our town.
Maggie: Oh, Elijah, no. I don’t think I’m meant to be a public person.
Eli: You should be. (grins at her) You will be. Trust me.
Janet: We have a term where I come from. It’s “Power Couple”. It means a couple that together has an influence over values, attitudes, and even politics. It seems to me that you two are becoming Blaineton’s Power Couple. What do you think?
Maggie: Trutfully? I don’t know whether to be humbled or horrified.
Eli: Remember, Maggie, your sister said you’re now in a position to have moral suasion.
Maggie: Money and position should not give one suasion.
Eli: Yeah, well, like it or not, that’s the way it is. (to Janet) If I'm reading things correctly, I think Maggie and I very well may find ourselves shaping our town.
Maggie: If that's the case, then your power lies in telling the truth.
Eli: And yours lies in love.
Janet: And that is what makes you a Power Couple.
Eli: We’ll see how that all plays out, won't we?
Maggie: Yes, I suppose we shall.
Janet: I want to thank the both of you for taking the time to speak with me. I’m sure my readers will be interested in what you have to say.
Eli (thoughtfully): Squeaking Pips Weekly… (suspiciously) Where did you say you're from?
Janet (abruptly closes her notebook and stands up): Oops! It’s getting late. I must go. Thank you again, Maggie and Eli. I’ll show myself out. (hurries out of the room)
Until Writing Wednesday! (Do you think Eli bought the explanation about where I was from?)
Image from Luykas Groundhog's Columbia County History Adventures, 2014 January 07
The image is a recreation of a Civil War-era parlor in the Vanderpoel House of History by the curator at the Columbia County (NY) Historical Society. The parlor at Greybeal House looked a bit like this, only with a few more sofas and wing chairs.
The other day, I struggled into a corset and crinoline cage (and all the other clothing that go with them), and called an old friend of mine, Seconds later there was a chugging sound and the TARDIS appeared in my family room so the Doctor could take me back to 1864. Typically, first we had to take a hair-raising side trip involving involved Cybermen and Daleks and the safety of Planet Earth. Next time I think I’m going to call Mr. Peabody and Sherman to help me with my time travel. Less drama, more safety. I hope.
Anyway, my interview with Maggie and Eli Smith was scheduled to take place in Greybeal House. I was told to go to the old wing of the building and knock on the door there. It leads to the kitchen, and the kitchen, I was told, was the main place of action for the residents of the house.
The first person I met was Moira Brennan, a sprightly young woman whose light skin is sprinkled with freckles. She has reddish blond hair, and green eyes. In a delightful Irish brogue she explained that she was one of the Greybeal House maids and that Mr. and Mrs. Smith were waiting for me in the front parlor.
“It’s much nicer there, ya see,” she said. “Ya won’t be having the hustle and bustle all around you.” Moira led me out of the kitchen and through a short hallway. (I could see the butler’s pantry to my right.) "And seeing as how we're usually busy at work in the kitchen, we aren’t able to hear someone knocking on the front door. We’ve yet to install a bell that would ring where we work, ya see. So there you are.”
We now were in the great part of the house and striding down the main hall. Moira walks quickly, but as we swept past everything, I was impressed by the sight of a large dining room to my left, a cozy back parlor to my right, a flawlessly polished hallway floor, and a grand staircase leading to the second floor. With the front door straight ahead, Moira suddenly turned and gently knocked on a door to our right. A muffled voice bade us to enter. Moira opened the door and we went in.
“Miss Janet Stafford,” the maid said to the two people sitting in the room.
Maggie and Eli rose from their chairs and walked toward me. At last, I was face to face with the people about whom I have been writing for years.
Maggie is a bit taller than I am. Her face is slightly heart-shaped, and her skin light with a touch of pink to her cheeks. On this day, her auburn hair was neatly and simply pulled away from her face and fastened in a bun at the back of her neck. She wore an equally simple dress: a light-yellow background patterned with small green diamonds, held out by a small crinoline cage. Although not spectacularly beautiful, Maggie’s attractiveness comes from the sense of peace and acceptance that she exudes. And I must say that her smile immediately put me at ease.
Eli was – well, very much Eli in beige trousers decorated with a brown check pattern, a solid brown vest and bow tie, and a dark brown frock coat. And yet the entire ensemble gave the appearance of being haphazard and wrinkled. He is not what anyone today would call a "hunk," but he has a "guy next door" quality, a friendly expression, and brown eyes that twinkle with the possibility of mischief. He stands about half a head shorter than Maggie. His skin is a bit ruddier than hers, hair dark brown, and he wears silver wire-rimmed glasses. And, yes, he is as portly as the books claim and dependent upon a cane (thanks to an event that occurred in the first book).
As they both greeted me warmly, Eli said to refrain from calling him "Mr. Smith" and insisted that I address him as "Eli."
"Fine," I replied. "I'm Janet."
"Well," Mrs. Smith replied with a little laugh, "then I suppose I must be Maggie. Shall we sit?"
We sank onto chairs that had been arranged around a tea table. As I did so, I took care to arrange myself so my crinoline cage didn’t throw my skirts up over my head. Although it is not a skill one needs to master in the 21st-century, it was essential in this setting. The last thing I needed was to embarrass myself in front of my own characters.
Maggie poured me a cup of tea. Eli handed me a slice of apple cake. And the interview began.
To be continued next week.
Creative Commons CC0. What's whiskey got to do with the first chapter in my new novel? Read on.
I’m a little late with this! My grandson graduated from eight grade yesterday. He’s movin’ on up to high school next year. So we all had a bit of a late night. This morning, I went to work at he church. Then I returned home and waited for a window installer/contractor to arrive to check the parsonage’s leaking front window. Since we’ve had a very soggy spring, this situation needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, after the contractor’s visit, I fear the repairs are going to be rather involved, and this will make the Trustees unhappy.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening coughing up a lung. Not sure if my cold is coming back or whether my allergies were aggravated when I trimmed the heck out of a bush in the front of the house. But the coughing was annoying I dosed myself up with various remedies. Fortunately, things have been brought back under control.
I know. The life of an assistant pastor/Christian education director/director of communications, reluctant gardener, and struggling author is scintillating, isn’t it? Ha! Not the case today, anyway.
So, here’s my Writing Wednesday goodie. It's a link to a PDF of the first chapter from A Good Community. The piece probably needs a bit more polishing. I’m still getting critiques back from my first two beta readers and we’re slowly getting there.
A word of explanation about what happens when I start a new novel: the characters often spend the first chapter doing mundane stuff and getting reacquainted with one another other (and I with them). That’s what they’re doing at the start of this novel. Only the very first scene and Eli’s pitch to Tryphena Moore are tied in some way to the main plot.
Now, I invite you to sit back, step back into 1864, and be the guests of Maggie, Eli, and the entire household of Greybeal House.
Chapter 1: Eli's Big Idea
I hope you enjoy Chapter 1. If you want to start the series from the beginning, check out the original novel, Saint Maggie. You can find it in the Squeaking Pips Store with links to the book on Amazon, Kindle, and other locations. But if you buy it directly from Squeaking Pips, I’ll even sign it for you and write something nice inside the book!
See you on Friday – provided I can catch the time to conduct an interview with Maggie and Eli. Not sure which year to which I’m going to time-travel, but it should be a fun chat with the couple whenever I turn up.
Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith. From Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (New York: Children's Classics, a div. of dilithium Press Ltd., 1987). Note: I am not writing about the girls from Alcott's book, I had seen plenty of images in nineteenth-century evangelical publications while researching my paper, but never photocopied them. So, Jessie Wilcox Smith's beautiful illustration will have to do. Actually, Wilcox Smith, who lived in the later nineteenth-early twentieth centuries would be an interesting subject for a forthcoming blog. But today, I'm going to finish up writing about reading materials for evangelical Christians.
Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith was a child way before the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the revolution in the kid lit. Along with the novels that Maggie the child managed to read on the sneak, she would have been exposed to materials written by evangelical Christians. In my research, I discovered that children’s magazines written specifically for that market defined the qualities of good little Christians. There are four clear models, and each leads to the next in a sort of progression. The first one, of course, is…
The operating premise behind this model is that children not only are capable of having but are expected to have a conversion experience. For evangelicals, conversion important because the death rate was high. Health was a gift and life was not to be taken for granted, so having a relationship with Jesus was the big essential. "Dear children,” the Missionary Repository told its readers, “you do not know how long you may have to live. May you be led to give yourselves up to the service of your Savior without delay.”
With such immediacy placed upon surrendering oneself to Christ - lest one meet an untimely death - it is no surprise that extremely young children would undergo complete conversion experiences. After all, one wanted to be assured a place in Heaven. The stories found in early-to-mid-nineteenth century Methodist magazines and books offer story after story of children aged nine and under who, fearing that their sins were unforgivable, turned to Jesus Christ and asked for forgiveness. Upon being assured that their sins had been wiped clean, they were then free to start a new life.
Their new life would include the development of...
While it was possible to possess good character without conversion, most of the magazines I read stressed that faith would lead to good works. God could and would help children develop and maintain the many desirable traits making up “good character.” And those traits were manifold: obedience, helpfulness, honesty, loyalty, charity, cheerfulness, industriousness, diligence at whatever they pursued, humility, modesty, dutifulness, good behavior, good manners, patience, submission to authority, tidiness, cleanliness, and prayerfulness.
Let the people say, “Yikes!” That is a boatload of traits. Only God could help a child shoulder the burden.
One of the most important aspects of good character, aside from obedience to God and parents, was charity. The charitable child would want to give both heart and goods in the service of spreading the Gospel at home and abroad.
But “good character” was not unique to evangelical Christians or even Christians in general. Throughout the nineteenth century, all people seem to have been judged by their character – or what appeared to be their character. So, along with a conversion experience and the development of good character, evangelical children needed to be a…
Good Little Missionary
The missionary movement was thriving in the nineteenth century, Christianity is a proselytizing religion, after all. As a result of the revival movements of the late 1700s and early 1800s, missionaries fanned out throughout the world to convert the “heathen” (non-believers). Whether the endeavor was successful, detrimental, an act of ignorance and hubris, or an aspect of colonialism is fodder for future blogs... or a full-length book. Just know that being a Good Little Missionary was expected of evangelical children.
Good Little Missionaries were supposed to give financially to their church’s missionary activities. They were taught to be thoughtful about how they used their money, a lesson that frequently was taught as poetry so it could be memorized.
If you wish to be told the best use of a penny,
I will tell you a way that is better than any,
Not on apples, or cakes, or on playthings to spend it,
But over the seas to poor heathen to send it.[i]
Writers told children that their pennies would change the lives of the “poor heathen” by contributing to missionaries who preached the Good News and brought with them the benefits of “civilization” (Western culture). Children learned that the duty of white, Western Protestants was to see that people living overseas would become “happy in God" and “civilized.” Thus, every penny was important.
Despise not then THE PENCE,
They help to make the pound.
And each may help to SPREAD ABROAD
THE GOSPEL’S JOYFUL SOUND![ii]
Later in the century, the missionary impulse also included the poor one's own country - perhaps even included the “heathen” living in one's own home! Young readers were told that converted children and young adults could have a powerful impact on their families.
One example of this is the story of poor little Nelly Steele, who one day loaned her mill dress to her mother, who had neglected to attend chapel because she did not own a nice dress. Nelly’s benevolence had a reach that went far beyond one Sunday morning. Her mother and then her entire family began attending church on a regular basis. Best of all, her father took the pledge to abstain from alcohol.[iii] Stories like Nelly's were meant to encourage readers to help friends and family members become Christian converts.
A child’s conversion, development of good character, and missionary activities would then lead to on final thing…
A Happy Death
As crazy as it may seem, this was a very real goal. If one had faith, then one did not need to fear the death and what lay beyond life. The idea was supported in children’s evangelical literature by numerous deathbed scenes involving children and young adults. In the example below, a young female teacher is on the verge of death. (Note the scary talk about being put in a coffin, buried in the “cold” ground, and facing hell.)
…though she knew that it was a fearful thing to die and to be put into a coffin, and be buried in the cold ground, yet she was not afraid to think of it. It is sin that makes people afraid to die, for they dare not face that God whom they have provoke by their wickedness; and they dread the thought of that place of torment where sinners are sent when they die. But this young Teacher had been made happy in her Saviour’s love, and she knew that he had pardoned all her sins, and had promised to come for her, and take her to heaven. The day before she died, her countenance grew very bright, and she cried, “Look! Look! Beautiful, beautiful saints and angels! Saints and angels! But if so delightful now, what will it be to-morrow?”[iv]
Young readers were taught that they could continue their missionary work right up to the moment of their death. One final act of charity and missionary work could be accomplished through their last words and final bequests.
A story in At Home and Abroad tells of young Mary, who “clapped her hands, and looking upwards, exclaimed ‘Thank God for that,’” when informed that her suffering would soon end in death. Then she gave her parents a dying blessing and “told her mother where to find her Missionary money." Finally, she said that she hoped her parents “would still continue to give a tenth to the Missions.”[v]
A Happy Death was achieved when 1) one had been converted and assured of going to heaven, 2) one willed one’s money to missions, and 3) one's last words and bequeaths inspired the people surrounding the deathbed.
In my paper's conclusion, I raised the following question: Did the magazines and other literature aimed at little Christians have any tangible influence on them?
I decided that, if there is an answer at all, it mostly likely would be found in the journals and diaries written by evangelicals, as well as in recorded materials about the attitudes and activities of public figures who also were evangelicals.
As for my character Maggie, she was indeed shaped by her childhood. As an adult she has a strong faith and strives to change people’s hearts, thereby, changing their behavior for the good. And, although she is concerned about Eli's apparent agnosticism, she clearly feels that he will find his way to faith. Maggie also is charitable to a fault (wait until you see how many people she packs into Greybeal House in the upcoming novel). As for a happy death… well, I suspect she is not afraid. Her own near-death experience speaks to that.
See you on Writing Wednesday, when I'll interview one of my characters. In the meantime, be kind and love others.
 Missionary Repository, June 1842, 90.
[i] Missionary Repository, June 1842, 91.
[ii]Sorry! I couldn’t find the reference for this poem! Plus, I only cited its conclusion.
[iii] At Home and Abroad, April 1885, 61-62.
[iv] Early Days, January 1847, 15-16.
[v] At Home and Abroad, December 1885, 228.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder