Memoirs Portray Rutherford Lifestyles in the 1900’s

As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, January 23, 2011

Elizabeth Opelia Howse (1896-1984)

Elizabeth Opelia Howse (1896-1984)

By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society

Elizabeth Ophelia Howse (Mrs. G. S. Ridley Jr., 1896-1984), at the urging of her children, wrote and published her memoirs in 1960.  Despite  complaints from a few, her writings give us a sensitive and informative portrayal of turn-of-the-century Rutherford County lifestyles and relationships.

The “turn-of-the century” (1900-15) followed the so-called “Gilded Age” (1875-1900) when there was rapid accumulation of wealth by an emerging  upper class, and “new wealth” began to crowd in on the ancestral upper class.

Howse traced her maternal ancestry through Andrew Ewing, a Pennsylvanian who arrived in middle Tennessee with James Robertson and signed the Cumberland Compact establishing the earliest Cumberland Settlements in 1780.  Her father was George Howse Jr., descendant of Ambrose  Howse who served as an officer under General George Washington.  George Howse began his career as a grocer and eventually rose to the  presidency of the 1st National Bank of Murfreesboro.  Elizabeth married Granville S. Ridley Jr., a second generation attorney and jurist.

As revealed in her writings, Howse was a “feminist” before the term was ever coined.

She wrote: “We do know that the brainy woman is discriminated against in our land.  Perhaps, because in their hearts men, knowing many women are smarter than they, dare not let them compete in the scientific and professional world.”  She could also be characterized as a “free-thinking  Christian” who thought little of denominational differences, was suspicious of long-winded and flowery prayers, accepted God’s will, and denied the  existence of Hell.

The Howse memoirs encompass three volumes: Falling Stars (1960), Falling Leaves (1970) and Flowers for Grace (1972).  In the 1960 volume she presents her mother’s recollections of post-Reconstruction people and events, and her own first-hand recollections of childhood in turn-of-the-century Murfreesboro.  Her literary style, though burdened somewhat by frequent but interesting digressions, is light and colorful, particularly when
she describes and characterizes a special personality.

Remembering Ocey Martin, a favorite but apparently troubled teacher at Soule College, Howse wrote: “She was medium height, pleasingly plump,  with deep large brown eyes, soft and sad.  The color of her hair reminded me of molasses candy after it is pulled.  She wore it in braids around her  head.  She was kind, patient and reserved.  I can still hear her soft voice as she leaned over my shoulder (to correct my writing) so close I could feel  the curve of her breast and smell the fragrance of her breath.  She rarely smiled.  She never laughed.  She was a soft shadow rather than a real  person to her pupils.”

The family physician, the senior Dr. J. B. Murfree, who made house calls before dinner, and usually stayed for dinner, was a dedicated professional,  a “good Presbyterian,” and a “delightful storyteller.”  According to the author’s childhood perspective: “Old Dr. Murfree was not handsome, but so  kind, so faithful, so good, he didn’t need to be handsome.  His voice was gruff, his face red, his nose large, his eyes small and deep set under  shaggy brows.  His hands were beautiful and gentle.”

In Falling Stars Howse identifies the Darrows and the Palmers as the two wealthiest families in the area in the 1900’s.  George Darrow and Tempie  Swope Darrow were “newcomers” having come to Murfreesboro in 1884 when they purchased the Maney home (“Oaklands”) at the north end of  Maney Avenue.  “They changed the name to Oak Manor.”  Darrow had been raised poor in Nebraska, but married well.  His wife, a Memphis belle,  inherited a large Mississippi cotton plantation.  “Mr. Darrow made a great deal of money from the rich, fertile soil of his wife’s land.”

The author’s description of the activity at Oak Manor, three blocks from her own home, paints a picture of extravagance characteristic of the period.

“The Darrows had many carriages, (including) a roomy low hung Victoria with facing seats…a colored coachman in black livery and stovepipe hat…perched high in front…pulled by four matching chestnut horses.”

The historic home in this period was filled with Italian chandelier, mahogany furniture, crystal and silver settings.  As a child the author marveled at  the formal dining room display of fine porcelain china purchased from the estate of an Italian prince.  Her description of numerous house servants  engaged in the preparation of a lavish dinner party, including a handmade ice cream watermelon, evidences the dependent relationship of the  wealthy white homeowners and the poor black residents of that era.  As for the quality of the dessert: “I had a slice all my own; it was too beautiful to  eat, just like a real watermelon, red and white and green, with black seeds made of chocolate.”

It was not uncommon for wealthy families in this period to keep “impaired” children or relatives in their home.  But in cases of retarded children or siblings, openness was not usually the case.  The impaired individual might be kept in a closed or locked private area of the house with very limited  contact with the “outside world.”  Such was the case for the Darrow family, according to Howse, but by mutual consent.

Tempie Darrow had an uncle.  “Very few people even know he exists.  Nobody ever sees him.  He has a tiny little room somewhere in the back; he  rarely takes a bath and never appears at the dinner table.”  The uncle told his niece that if she would “let him live in her home and not make him take a bath, he would leave her his money.”  According to Howse, based on one brief encounter with “Unk,” as the servants called him, he was “a queer  little old man, with a hump on his back.  His hair was white, his eyes blue.  He had a little brown shawl…his gnarled hands clutched a crooked stick.”

Unlike the Darrows, the Palmers were “old blood” with ancestry reaching back to the early years of the county.  They lived in a large, stately brick  home on East Main Street and had a number of local business interests.  Howse recalls that the Darrow and Palmer patriarchs had been at odds  for a number of years, and that her father succeeded in working a reconciliation.  (The Palmer family currently associated with the Murfreesboro  wholesale produce business first arrived here in the 1940’s and is apparently not related to the East Main family portrayed by Howse.)

In contrast with the lifestyle of the upper class, Howse devotes a chapter to a sympathetic account of a tragic working class family-Lily and Warren Miles.  (The author uses another name for this very real couple, but marginal notations in a worn copy of the 1960 volume confirm the identity that contemporaries quickly recognized from the author’s description.)

Their romance began on Mink Slide but quickly turned sad as Warren, a handsome young man, married Lily, a lovely courtesan.  Warren’s well-respected family was embarrassed by Lily’s background and reputation.  Lily, however, humbly struggled to care for her wastrel husband and disapproving in-laws.  Warren’s abusive lifestyle took its toll and he eventually became wheelchair confined and misshapen by disease and self-neglect.

Over the decades there have been a number of “characters” that became “regulars” doing menial work or asking for charity on the courthouse  square.  Frail and bent, Lily became part of that class, pushing the wheelchair and seeking charity — “two of Murfreesboro’s most fantastic  characters.”

Howse’s focus on these two illustrates the effect of the stigma that attached during this “class conscious” era, and further evidences the devotion of a shunned woman.

Describing the couple in their last years, Howse records: “A wrinkled woman of uncertain years, her dress grease-spotted and torn, her hair hanging around her shoulders … in dirty strings, her shanklike legs bare, her feet enclosed in faded red shoes with broken heels, doggedly pushing an old-fashioned invalid’s chair in which slumped a scarecrow of a man, lean and sullen, his unshaven dirty chin sunk upon his caved-in chest, his clothes patched and faded, his dirty feet bare with broken begrimed nails, holding in his lap a great, gaunt shaggy dog with mournful eyes … of uncertain ancestry.”

When Howse learned of Lily’s death: “We rejoiced that at long last this good woman had received her just reward … that no longer must she trudge  the streets with downcast eyes … that at long last her soul was at peace.”  Within three days, both Warren and his dog joined Lily in death.

Without the memoirs of Elizabeth Howse, the story of Warren and Lily, and the lesson it provides, would have been forever lost.  Despite the treasure of period insight preserved in these short volumes, their publication 50 years ago drew criticism from descendants of two locally prominent families-the Palmers and the Lytles.  Both took exception to limited references to 19th Century ancestors and events.

Jim Ridley, a nephew of the author, recalls: “The family generally believed that the few complainers were grossly overreacting, and that their  concerns were not particularly significant.”

Greg Tucker can be reached at

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