By Mary Grimes
I had lived in Brooklyn for 25 years with no idea ancestors had preceded me there. Then, a few years ago, one of my sisters turned up a 1924 account by one of our great-grandmothers about her mother.
Titled “A Sketch of A. E. W. Dewey” and subtitled “Published in the Norwalk [Ohio] Reflector,” it told of my great-great-grandmother’s childhood in Brooklyn Heights before she moved to Ohio as a young woman.
My mother believed that Anne Eliza Wolcott Dewey had grown up in Boston. Mother was very knowledgeable about her heritage and especially proud of her great-grandmother, the woman she was named after. It was very surprising and mysterious to all of us that she had this wrong.
According to great-grandmother Frances Dewey Laylin, Anne Eliza Wolcott Dewey was born in Sandisfield, Massachusetts, in 1821, and soon moved with her parents to Leroy, New York, where her father, Samuel, died suddenly of heart disease. After a few years back in her grandfather’s home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, she and her mother moved to Brooklyn to be with her mother’s sisters, who ran a boarding school for young ladies in Brooklyn Heights. They lived “but a few doors from St. Ann’s Episcopal Church … on the present site of the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.”
At the Brooklyn Historical Society, microfilm for the 1830s showed that St. Ann’s — where they went to church — had stood in the village near the future site of the bridge, just up the hill from Fulton Landing, the busy hub where ferries went back and forth to Manhattan. St. Ann’s later moved south to make way for the bridge, for many years occupying the building at Clinton and Livingston Streets that is now part of Packer Collegiate Institute before merging with Holy Trinity at the corner of Montague and Clinton. I found Anne Eliza’s name on the city directory with her address: 11 Prospect Street. When I walked to Prospect Street, I hoped their house would still be there, but I found no buildings on that block. It is now an open area of grass adjacent to the bridge — they must have had a wonderful view of the river.
Anne Eliza was surrounded by “cultured” women, and she described her home as a “literary center.” Her aunts contributed to magazines like Godey’s Ladies Book and The Ladies Repository. Poet and editor (The New World) Park Benjamin was a guest, as was writer and editor (The Home Journal ,which became Town & County) N.P. Willis. Willis’s sister, Fanny Fern — novelist, essayist and children’s story writer — also visited often. Anne Eliza was acquainted with literary figures like Catherine Sedgwick, Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant.
At the Brooklyn Public Library I found the name “Miss Wolcott” (probably Anne Eliza’s mother Huldah Wolcott) in the index of a book by Ralph Foster Weld, Brooklyn Village, 1816-1834. When I turned to the page, I read:
By the year 1821, there were eight private establishments in the village, but most of them were very simple affairs, with meager equipment. The schoolroom was often a front parlor, and the mixed schools occupied two rooms in order to keep the sexes private. … Gradually, enlarged facilities were secured by the more prosperous institutions. … These removals and enlargements marked the beginning of a process that lasted throughout the village period, an adaption to population shifts and growing demands. They reflect the increasing tempo of village life in the early twenties, already noted in so many fields. Miss Wolcott, during the same fruitful season, opened a new school for “Young Ladies” on Prospect Street, where, for four dollars per quarter, she was ready to teach spelling, reading, writing, and sewing.
It was during that “fruitful season” that Brooklyn became known as a desirable suburb: ferry service to Manhattan got better, business in the port of New York generated commerce, and all manner of professionals, merchants and prosperous families moved in. The need for schools increased, and teachers came from far and wide. Weld writes:
In the middle thirties Brooklyn had become the city of homes and churches, a lecture-going, church-going community, a pleasant suburban place, quieter and more sedate than New York.
The picture is lightened by the cotillion groups, by the coming of secular music, by the genial urbanity which occasionally distinguished the press, by the diversions afforded by the Gardens and the infrequent visits of entertainers, by the ambitious flights of poets and essayists. But, in its distinguishing institutional forms, Brooklyn was rather soberly respectable. The disheveled, unkempt village of 1816 had undergone a metamorphosis.
After finishing her education, Anne Eliza left Brooklyn with her family and returned to Great Barrington. Soon the whole family migrated to Ohio. Anne Eliza married John Fairchild Dewey in 1845 and settled in Norwalk, Ohio. She liked to tell the story about her surprise on seeing Norwalk and its few “scattered dwellings” for the first time. “Where is the town?” she asked.
By all accounts, Anne Eliza had a happy life in Ohio. She was described as well read, interesting, energetic, kind, generous, public-spirited, and “good company,” and someone who “kept up her interest in the world at large by reading the newspaper and current literature. Her letters were models of elegant diction and showed the result of her early training.” She raised “hundreds of dollars” for the soldiers during the Civil War by putting on plays and tableaux, and “no gown of hers was too good to be converted into a costume, for a character.” Her husband was appointed Internal Revenue Collector by President Lincoln and their home “was a rendezvous for many notable men,” among them senators and governors. Anne Eliza and John had four daughters.
Anne Eliza Wolcott Dewey remained interested in New York and subscribed to the New York Tribune her whole life. I own two heirlooms. One is a small, red bottle I picked out from mother’s things after she died; the other is a small blue vase mother had given me for my birthday one year. I keep both on my desk where I can easily see them. A few months ago, I got around to trying to find out their history and asked my sisters if they knew anything. I found out that both had belonged to Anne Eliza Wolcott Dewey, my great-great grandmother.
A Cobble Hill resident, Mary Grimes is an executive assistant for Guardian Life Insurance and a co-editor of Stories from the Anne Grimes Collection of American Folk Music (Ohio University Press, 2010).