Tuesday, July 24, 2012

“Reunion”

                                                                                                                          Sydney M. Williams
                                                                                                                          July 23, 2012

Note from Old Lyme
“Reunion”

“Every parting gives a foretaste of death;
every reunion a hint of the Resurrection.”
                                                                                           Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860)
                                                                                           German philosopher

Seventy-eight descendants of my great-grandparents gathered in New Haven a few weeks ago to learn something about our common ancestors, Henry Lucius Hotchkiss and his wife Jane Fitch Trowbridge, but also to reunite with cousins, some of whom we had not seen in decades, and to meet others we had never known. We ranged in age from the late eighties to under a year. My great grandfather lived to be 87, dying in 1930, while his wife died in 1902 at the age of 52. As the youngest grandchild was about ten when he died, all his grandchildren knew him well. None of them knew their grandmother. My mother and her siblings perhaps knew him best, as they were raised in his house.

Only one grandchild, Gertrude Ely Carter born in 1914, is still alive, but was unable to be at the reunion. Thus, the “old” folk at the reunion were my generation, the great grandchildren. Of those, the oldest to attend was Carl Ely Shedd, born in 1932. The youngest attendees were a great-great-great granddaughter Kenley Elizabeth Dunham and a great-great-great grandson, Charles Vito Cerasuolo, both born in 2011.

Lee Dunham, now living in Belmont, Massachusetts and my second cousin, was the force behind the reunion. He arranged that we meet at the New Haven Museum on Whitney Avenue in late morning. Over lunch we listened to Michelle Cheng, director of education for the museum, give a brief history of the city and the role played by generations of Hotchkisses. The day being pleasant, we then walked the short distance to the historic Grove Street Cemetery where generations of our family lie – including a properly impressive monument marking Noah Webster’s grave. Again, Lee had arranged for a guided tour which proved informative and prevented us from dispersing like spirits among the tombstones.

The Grove Street Cemetery was established in 1796, and was one of the first to consider family plots. The documents establishing the cemetery read that it be “…better arranged for the accommodations of families…” Its wrought iron fence and sandstone Egyptian Revival-style entrance arch were erected in 1845. Among those reposing within its walls are such luminaries as Walter Camp, Charles Goodyear, Glenn Miller , Roger Sherman, Eli Whitney and Noah Webster. Also buried there are former presidents of Yale, including Kingman Brewster and Bart Giamatti.

Leaving the cemetery, we walked up Hillhouse Avenue to the house my great grandfather had bought in 1888. Shortly afterwards he added a wing, which included a ballroom/library, almost doubling the size of the original building. The house had been built in 1859 by Pelatiah Petit, a New York merchant. (Today, the house stands in the midst of the Yale campus, but in the 1880s this would have been a country dwelling.) The description of Hillhouse Avenue as “the most beautiful street in America” has been attributed to both Charles Dickens, who visited New Haven in both 1842 and 1867 and Mark Twain, who lived in Hartford from 1874 to 1891. The house was sold to Yale University in 1931, and was initially used by the Oceanography Department. Described as a Tuscan-style villa, it later became the residence of the Yale Provost. Today, it is known as Horchow Hall and houses the Admissions Office for the School of Management along with faculty offices and seminar rooms. The façade is brick covered in stucco and “features detailed carvings on the capitals, eaves and portico,” according to one description.

Two generations of Hotchkisses grew up in the house – my grandfather and his sisters, from the time he was ten, and my mother and her brothers, until she was twenty. The house is large and sits on generous grounds, a portion of which has now been built upon. The land originally reached back to Whitney Avenue and included a horse stable, which now functions as a garage. The staff, as I heard the story growing up, numbered eighteen, making the house a significant enterprise, although one that consumed rather than generated income.

Henry Lucius Hotchkiss was born in New Haven in 1842, the son of a prosperous merchant. His father Henry Hotchkiss, along with his uncle Lucius, inherited a lumber business from their uncle, Justus Hotchkiss. HLH was the only son of Henry Hotchkiss and his wife Elizabeth Daggett Prescott. (Elizabeth was the great niece by marriage of Roger Sherman, the only Founding Father to sign all basic documents of our republic – the Articles of Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.) He was the youngest child among five sisters, four of whom survived into adulthood. A daguerreotype of him at age five shows a willful child staring determinedly at the camera. A later one, taken when he must have been in his twenties, is of a self-confident young man with wavy dark hair, wide-set eyes, a prominent nose and full lips.

HLH’s wife Jane Trowbridge, whom he married on February 25, 1875, was also born in New Haven in 1850. Her father, Henry Trowbridge, had married Mary Southgate, a granddaughter of Noah Webster. She had been raised by the lexicographer, as her mother had died in child birth.

Henry and Jane bore three children: my grandfather Henry Stuart (1878-1947), who married Elizabeth Washington, and who was always known as Stuart; Helen Southgate (1880-1964), who married Elisha Ely Garrison, and Elizabeth Trowbridge (1885-1968), who married Carl Brandes Ely.

Henry Lucius Hotchkiss was short, about 5’ 7”. He succeeded his father in all of his father’s business endeavors, other than the lumber business which had closed in 1850. While he inherited wealth, he increased its value. A photograph, taken in his later years, shows a gentle, kindly looking man with thick, wavy white hair, parted in the middle, and sporting a walrus mustache. A 1918 volume, Modern History of New Haven describes his father who died in 1871: “He was a man who possessed the qualities of leadership in business and financial affairs and was gifted with the exceptional capacity for controlling large enterprises. He displayed notable sagacity and keen insight into business situations, together with the power of coordinating seemingly adverse interests into a complex and unified whole. He figured not only as one of the foremost manufacturers of the state, but also as a prominent factor in many other business lines, being called to the presidency of various corporations.” The principal business interest of Henry Hotchkiss was the L. Candee Company. Around 1843 Henry Hotchkiss and his brother Lucius helped finance Leverett Candee who had acquired the rights to use Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization process to produce rubber boots. By 1852 the business was up and running. Before Goodyear’s discovery, rubber would melt in intense heat and become brittle in extreme cold. The process of vulcanization allowed the product to be used in extreme temperatures. The industrial revolution largely depended on rubber, from machinery parts to tires. For several decades, rubber was perhaps the single most valuable commodity in the world.

In the same volume, his son is described as one who became actively interested in his father’s business interests, beginning in 1860 when he left Williston Academy at the age of seventeen. His first job was as paymaster for the New London Railroad. By the time he was 21 he had become secretary of L. Candee & Co. Shortly afterwards he became treasurer as well, and then succeeded his father as president when the latter died in 1871. Henry Lucius was then 29 years old. At its peak, L. Candee employed 2000 people and was producing 20,000 pair of rubber boots per day. On November 19th 1877 (HLH was then 34) the entire plant was destroyed by fire. His responses are described: “Quick in action and at all times resourceful, Mr. Hotchkiss at once leased temporary factories and immediately began rebuilding on a much larger and finer scale.” Fifteen years later, in 1892, HLH merged L. Candee with half a dozen other rubber companies to form United States Rubber Company of New Jersey. For the first seven years, he served in the office of the chairman and on the executive committee. In 1899, he resigned from those positions to travel around the world, but remained a member of the board of directors.

Henry Lucius Hotchkiss also followed his father as president of the Union Trust Company of New Haven, of which he and his father were both original incorporators. A few years later he became vice president of a consolidated Union and New Haven Trust Company. Additionally, he was president of the New Haven Pin Company and a director of the New Haven Bank and the New Haven and New London Railroad.

HLH lived in the house at 55 Hillhouse for forty-two years, until he died in 1930. When his son (my grandfather, Stuart) married in 1907 he brought his bride to live there. My grandmother, born in Tennessee, at the age of eighteen, became mistress of this large home that employed, as mentioned, a staff of eighteen.

Sometime around the time he moved into 55 Hillhouse, HLH met and employed a coachman named Taylor. Taylor had been born a slave and had grown up around horses. After the Civil War, he traveled to Vermont in the employ of an ex-Union officer. Deciding Vermont was too cold, he went south, as far as New Haven where he got a job in a stable, and it was there that my great grandfather met him. Taylor worked for HLH the rest of his life. By the end of World War I, cars had generally replaced horses, yet my great grandfather persisted in keeping his carriage horses, so that Taylor would always have a job. This was much to my mother’s delight. I have a photograph of her, about 1923, dressed in a white pinafore, wearing a wide-brimmed bonnet, sitting primly in the carriage, with Taylor holding the reins of the two horses. My mother had sweet-talked her grandfather into letting Taylor drive her to dancing lessons about seven miles away in Hamden. She told him the horses could use the exercise.

While I have no letters written by HLH, one can get a sense of the man from letters written to him. In January 1924, my mother, along with her mother and one brother, took a trip through the Panama Canal, aboard the S.S. Kroonland. A letter from my mother and cards from my grandmother, his daughter-in-law, speak of the fondness they had for him. “Dear Grandpa,” begin the letters from my mother. “Dearest Papa,” start those from my grandmother.

He died in May 1930 while watching the boat races aboard the observation train in Derby, Connecticut. With him at the time were friends and his grandson, Joseph Hotchkiss (my mother’s youngest brother), who was ten years old at the time. Joe Hotchkiss’s wife, Hannah Eugenia Whitney, was at the reunion, representing her generation. At the time of his death Henry Lucius Hotchkiss was Commodore of the St. Regis Yacht Club in the Adirondacks, a position held by his great grandson, Carl Shedd sixty-two years later. He is buried, among many of his forebears, in New Haven’s historic Grove Street Cemetery.

The Depression had just begun when Henry Lucius Hotchkiss died. He never knew that his son (my grandfather) would become one of the victims of Ivar Kreuger, the “Swedish Match King”. Kreuger was the largest swindler of his day, only eclipsed by Bernie Madoff. In 1931, the house at 55 Hillhouse was sold and the gilded lifestyle that had been his and his families became but a memory. My grandfather, who had retired in 1929, had to return to work, dying of a heart attack on September 16, 1947 at the age of 68. His wife, my grandmother, who had arrived in New Haven as an eighteen-year old bride from Tennessee in 1907; now widowed, she was forced to sell their summer house in Madison, Connecticut and move into a cottage on the property. Nevertheless, there was never any rancor, no feeling sorry for herself. She always spoke about her husband, my grandfather, in the most loving terms. She died September 8, 1961.

History is always most easily learned when we associate our ancestors with the times in which they lived. For example, we know that Henry Lucius Hotchkiss’s first years in business were during a time when our country was fighting a Civil War for to preserve its union. While he never donned a uniform, or served in the union army, we can assume many of his friends and acquaintances did. Did he ever feel guilty that others went off to war when he did not? We cannot know. We know that severe economic recessions hit the United States in the 1870s and 1890s, and we know that he had to have adapted well, as his business interests continued to expand.

Family reunions remind us, not only of the importance of our immediate families, they reflect what Edward O. Wilson would term “group selection.” It was our relationship to a specific ancestor that drew us together. But a reunion does more than just that. The power of compounded returns not only illustrates how many descendants we each might have in two hundred years, but also from how many people each of us descends. Every hundred years produces roughly three generations. The world’s population a millennium ago has been estimated at 400 million, yet each one of us has descended from about 500 million people going back those same 1000 years. So, mathematically, we know we must all be related.

That sense of interconnectedness reflects a sense of the catholic nature of our lives and common ancestry. Professor Wilson, in his book The Social Conquest of Earth writes in the final chapter: “A recent analysis has shown that the increasing interconnection of people worldwide strengthens their cosmopolitan attitudes. It does so by weakening the relevance of ethnicity, locality and nationhood as sources of identification...Inevitably it will weaken confidence in creation myths and sectarian dogmas.” While it is my guess that differences among people, their cultures and religions, will not be eradicated for many more centuries, ultimately there may well be a realization that, as members of the human race, we are essentially the same, each of us having descended, as sociologists and anthropologists have reminded us, from Homo sapiens who left Africa 60,000 years ago. In time, disparate people and cultures may evolve back into one culture and race. E Pluribus Unum.

There is no greater charge we are given in life than that of being good parents. Children are the greatest legacy any of us can leave. George Bernard Shaw, the acerbic British playwright, once noted: “Perhaps the greatest social service that can be rendered by anybody to this country and to mankind is to bring up a family.” As we gathered just inside the entrance of the New Haven Museum that Saturday in June, and I looked around at people, some of whom I did not know nor had ever heard of, I began to realize the enormity of the responsibility that those of us who choose to have children are given. Genetics determine much of our behavior, but the environment in which we raise them and the lessons they learn from us are equally important.

Not every family can assemble so many descendants of one couple in one place, but if you can, the experience is worth doing; for the sense of history it provides and for the interconnectedness you will feel.


No comments:

Post a Comment