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The Southland’s House of Memories
Confederate Home for Women Is ‘Living, Breathing Shrine’ Where Homage to the Mothers Of the South Never Dims
By Jack Burgess
A home of gleaming white Indiana limestone, beautiful in its simplicity, emulating in its pillared front and classic lines the First Home of the nation, a home of hundred rooms, a home for the Confederacy’s brave women–that is the Southland’s "House of Memories."
On North Sheppard Street, in Richmond, on hallowed ground–land deeded for this "living, breathing shrine" to the women of the South by the Robert E. Lee Camp of Confederate veterans–stands this quarter of a million dollar home. It houses today about fifty-five women to each of whom the "Lost Cause" is still "her" cause, for which they gave their all in father, husband or brother.
And as the front portal latches behind the incoming visitor, Richmond of 1935 is shut without and that Richmond of the period of lavender and old lace, of crystal chandeliers and glass-domed curios, of horsehairfurniture and stately rooms, envelops one.
It is a fitting atmosphere in which these belles of yesteryear dwell and with their memories of the land they held so dear, of deeds their loved ones dared to do, of sacrifices offered, and of those dear, sweet days of youth.
Here, rocking peacefully the hours away, sits Mrs. William Grady. It will be just one hundred years ago that she first saw the light of this fair world if she is permitted to rock away just another three short months. April 30 is her birthday anniversary, and still mentally alert, she lives and relives the glorious achievements of her mate and son.
"I am the mother of Captain John Grady and the wife of Captain William Grady," she announces proudly to the visitor. "It was my boy who ran the famous cannonball train when no others dared take that precious ammunition to the front. It was my man who kept the railroads on their tracks, who made the wheels go round when others said it couldn’t be done," she boasts, and she nods her head in vague acceptance of the visitor’s acknowledgement of those heroic deeds.
Mrs. Grady also relates that she was the first of the lengthening list of Confederate women to seek the shelter of the home when it was opened thirty-five years ago in a most inadequate domicile on Grove Avenue."Then it was a shelter and that is about all one can say for it," reminisces Mrs. Grady. "there were five small beds crowded into one small chamber, hardly space enough to get between them. In those days all of us women did the work of the home, took care of it and even had to take our market baskets and go out and get our own food supplies."
Mrs. Grady recalls vividly several incidents of her life when she and her family lived at Wilson’s Depot, on the canal. In those days most of the women wove their own cloth and the loss of a bolt meant a real tragedy in their domestic lives.
"One day," she relates, "the canal was rising. It had passed flood stage and the waters were creeping into all our homes. I had only just finished several bolts of cloth and they were piled around my dining-room. Swiftly the canal waters poured in and my entire stock of cloth was threatened. There was a merry scramble for a while as I salvaged old boxes and everything else available to put under the legs of my dining-room table in order to raise it high enough to keep the water from ruining my precious bolts of cloth."
It was with some of that very same cloth that Mrs. Grady created something of a sensation when she entered the home, for she wore one of her homespun dresses, she recalls.
"How the ladies talked about it," she laughs. "I could hear them passing remarks about ‘where do you suppose she got it?’ and ‘what kind of cloth can it be?’
"Yes, there have been plenty of changes in my time, and it is hard for me to say what I think has been the greatest one. Perhaps I consider one of the greatest a matter that isn’t usually placed among benefits to mankind when that question is asked. But I think the spreading feeling of good-fellowship between the North and South, the unity of the nation again, is one of the most wonderful things I have been permitted to see. Little did I ever think that those two great factions could ever be brought together again. After that, I guess the electric light and the radio should be classed together as benefits."
Mrs. Grady, with Miss Virginia Cook, her nearest competitor for the "oldest" honors in the home, Miss Cook being 95 years old, dwell with several others in the infirmary, where they have constant nursing care. Both, however, are able to be up, dressed, and move about the home every day, although not attending meals.
Another of the spry "young" nonogenarians is Mrs. L. _. R. Smith, whose 91 years in no way interfere with her ability to finger out fetching Southern airs on the piano which was once the cherished possession of the daughter of Jefferson Davis. Mrs. Smith plays frequently for the women in the home, and her rendition of those old favorites, "Dixie," "Swanee River" and "Old Black Joe," never fail to cheer as the stirring tunes ring through the solariums. Too, when feeling fit, she plays the hymns for the home’s religious gatherings.
The "girls" of the home, those not confined to the infirmary, each have their own room and the meals are served in a large, cheery community dining-room.
Many of the hours are spent by these women in amusing debates among themselves as to the relative merits of "husbands they have known," and two of the home’s guest have each been married twice and consider themselves qualified experts in these debates.
Mrs. Leila Gills, daughter of Patrick H. Butler, is the proud narrator of how her father served the Confederacy as an official of the treasury, and among her most cherished possessions are some pieces of mosaic jewelry he brought her after one of his trips to Italy.
"My father frequently ran the blockade in order to get back and forth to Europe to buy paper for the Confederacy to print its money on," she relates. "It was on one of his return trips that he sailed from Italy with this jewelry, and it was on the Virginia Dare that he attempted to run the blockade, but was prevented from landing in Virginia by the Yankee blockade squadron. He succeeded in being put ashore in North Carolina and made his way back to Richmond overland."
Among the most prevalent memories of these Mothers of the South are those having to do with the various localities they used to live in.
"I remember when Nineteenth Street was one of the prettiest streets in Richmond," Mrs. Gills says. "Sometimes now, I go down there and try to visualize tha__ ___n as I used to know it. But it’s pretty hard to do," she adds.
Still another of the "girls," Mrs. Robert N. Dunn, likes to relive those glamorous days when "Stonewall" Jackson was a frequent and welcome guest at her father’s house. He was George Hundley, and the night that the General insisted that he be allowed to share Master Hundley’s bed with him was a red letter day in that family’s annals.
Not the least of the memories that occupy these women as may be supposed is the matter of clothes. What changes fashion has decreed since the days when style was one of their problems. The hoop skirt, bustle and pantalette, the long sweeping skirt, the short vogue and the days of tight laces, of shirtwaists and vouminous petticoats have all come and gone.
"Some are returning, perhaps in modified form, but surely the trend is back towards some of those very model clothes that lots of us have in our trunks," declares one.
And this brings us to that little room more steeped in the romance of long ago than even the upstairs rooms–the trunk storage. Here are trunks of all models, the conventional square trunk and many of those less familiar "camel-back" trunks with the rounded corners.
"Each of the ladies has access at any time to her trunk in this room, and keeps in them the things for which she may have no immediate use in her room," explains the matron. "In them, too, are mostly clothes such as they wore years ago, or in the days when they entered the home."
Out-moded by decades, some of the clothing brings to mind as nothing else could those days when milady with her curling lock drooped gracefully over the shoulder to the front "received" or curtesied at some gay time in stately plantation manor house, or with parasol poised daintily waved "good-bye" to her soldier boy as he left for the South’s front line. Mutton-leg sleeves, ruffles, frills, basques and "chokers" are all represented in these collections of "finery."
And now a word or two about the home itself. Chartered in 1898 by the auxiliary of Pickett Camp, it was not until two years later, on October 15, 1900, that the first home was opened. It was in what is now the 1800 block of Grove Avenue, a wholy inadequate sort of place and one in which the work of the home could never have commanded the respect it was necessary to insure for it to make positive its perpetuation.
Mrs. Nelson Powell was the first president, and Mrs. George E. Pickett, wife of the hero of Gettysburg, was honorary president. Mrs. D. M. Burgess, the originator of the home idea, was recording secretary.
It was early in 1903 that Mrs. A. J. Montague, wife of the new Attorney-General of the State, was sought to lead the movement which so sorely needed practical support as well as sympathetic interest. Mrs. Montague finally consented, became president, and is today the head of the board of managers with this magnicent memorial to the women of the South a tribute to the interest and hard work she brought to the position.
Sponsoring a bazaar in 1903, she raised more than $10,000 and feeling the home quarters were not what was needed, the board bought the building at No. 3 East Grace Street, in which the old Powell school had quarters. But disaster dogged the home in those early years, and it was on Christmas Eve in 1916 that fire broke out in the trunk room and destroyed the home.
All of the home’s residents were saved, and the generosity of the neighbors in taking in the old ladies and caring for them not only with shelter, but with clothing, money and foodstuffs, is one of the bright spots in that dismal memory, says Mrs. Montague. Finding, however, that the care of aged women was more than many of the townsfolk were prepared to undertake, Mrs. Montague began speedy search for new quarters for her charges. These she found in the old Tenth Street Female Institute, where temporary rooms were furnished. The Grace Street Home was repaired and the Confederate women moved back.
Then came the bequest in the will of Dr. Alexander Spiers George, leaving a quarter of a million dollars to the home. This made possible the fulfillment of Mrs. Montague’s dream of a house that would be both practical and a fitting memorial to the Southern women. She had her mind set on acquiring part of the old soldiers home property for her building for the Confederate women for obvious sentimental reasons.
This was further assisted by the Robert E. Lee Camp donating enough land on the North Sheppard Street side of their camp for the purpose, but as this property had already been deeded to the State, the Commonwealth’s sanction had also to be obtained. At some length, the State concurred with the camp and the deed to the property was turned over to the home’s board of managers–but with a proviso.
It was declared necessary that for the home to avail itself of its chosen location a building not to cost less than the sum left for the purpose by Dr. George must be erected.
"This is why today we have this magnificent structure as an old ladies’ home," explains Mrs. Montague. "it has to cost a quarter of a million before I could get the property I wanted."
Unfortunately legal delays in the probation of Dr. George’s will held up the bequest until a time when market conditions were such that the highest values were not obtainable for the negotiable securities he had specified for the home, and the bequest therefore shrank considerable before the home got it.
In the meantime Mrs. Montague was having busy sessions with architects. It was her desire to have an edifice that could be a true shrine, a practical home, and maintain the dignity of old Virginia traditions.
At length came the thought of the White House–its simple lines and beauty of world acclaim. Too, it was named for a Virginia homestead, the old Custis "White House." Most appropriate. And so was developed the present beautiful building.
The Home for Confederate Women is reported to be the most economically run of any State aided institution in Virginia. It is staffed by only fourteen attendants, including Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Wade, who, as general supintendent and matron, respectively, look after the welfare of their fifty-five charges. Its equipment is the most modern money can buy, yet its furnishings are in that period which so many of the women remember so well.
Up-to-date kitchen and refrigerator equipment in the basement, a butler’s pantry annexed to the dining-room, afford ample opportunities for caring for the large family which Mrs. Wade mothers. The butler’s pantry has a good sized electric refrigerator in which the women are permitted to store delicacies and where they may prepare choice tid-bits with which to treat their guests.
Requirements for admission to the home as outlined by Mrs. Montague include the necessary factor that an applicant be the wife, daughter or sister of a Confederate soldier and be at least sixty-five years old. Unlike most homes for aged people, this institution does not insist that an applicant make over to the home any or all of her personal belongings. Indeed, some of the women in the home also receive the State pension which they in turn relinquish to their kin without any restrictions being imposed by the home management.
No detail has been too small to be overlooked in this ideal home for these great idealists of the nation, the women of the South.
And as the portals once more latch behind the visitor there is a certainy that within those limestone walls the Old South still lives, that the lavender and old lace will never fade, and that here, posterity has its golden opportunity to unburden itself of some of that great debt it owes to the mothers of the South.