“Mrs. M. E. Woods”
Mehitable Owen Cooper Fox Ellis Woods (1811-1891)
Fairfield’s most famous and well-loved Civil War hero was actually not a hero at all, but a heroine: Major Mehitable Ellis Woods, better known to generations of Fairfielders as “Aunty” Woods or “Mother” Woods.
The youngest of seven (five surviving) children of Julius Augustus and Mehitable “Hettie” (Castle) Owen, Mehitable was born by Lake Champlain in Georgia, Crittenden Co., Vermont, on September 28, 1811. She was named for her mother, who died after giving birth to her. Her father remarried a month later to a widow who brought four more young children of her own into the family, and over the next few years would give Julius three more children. (While Mehitable is usually said to have been born in 1813, her mother died in 1811. See Ralph Dornfeld Owen, Descendants of John Owen of Windsor, Connecticut, 1622-1699, Philadelphia, 1941.)
When Mehitable was about nine months old America declared war on Britain, spurred by young “War Hawks” like Kentucky’s Henry Clay and South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. Called “America’s second revolution,” the War of 1812 was a response to British impressment of American sailors into the British Navy, blockading of American ports, and incitement of Native Americans to violence against Western settlers. Mehitable’s family was no stranger to war with the British. While her father was later said to be an uncle of Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, actually Julius’s half-brother-in-law Heber Allen was a brother of that famed general, who had captured Lake Champlain’s Fort Ticonderoga from the British with his Green Mountain Boys in 1775. Mehitable’s grandfather too reportedly fought in the Revolution, though as yet we have found no records of formal service.
The War of 1812 looked progressively worse for the Americans. Very close to home, in the spring and summer of 1813 the British captured two American sloops on Lake Champlain, and gaining control of the lake had begun raiding, looting and burning coastal settlements with impunity in both New York and the Owens’ home state of Vermont. More shocking still, in August of 1814 the British captured and burned the White House, and simultaneously pushed a massive attack down Lake Champlain in a major invasion of New York State. Napoleon’s defeat in Europe that spring had lifted Britain’s spirits and freed up thousands of battle-hardened veterans to prosecute the war in America. But shortly afterwards and against all odds, the British fleet experienced a decisive defeat at the Battle of Plattsburgh — only about ten miles west across the lake from the Owens’ house – which effectively ended the War of 1812, as without naval support the British army was forced to retreat to Canada, despite outnumbering the New Yorkers and Vermont Green Mountain Boys by three to one. Mehitable’s father reportedly served in the War of 1812, but again no records of his service have yet surfaced. Either way, Mehitable herself surely derived early and powerful lessons from the War on the value of courage, perseverance, and strategic planning to wrest victory from defeat and achieve one’s goals.
Mehitable received very little formal education, and probably enjoyed very little childhood leisure. At the age of twelve she was sent to live and work in the home of a Congregational deacon named Mr. Mears, probably related to John Mears, who had just married her oldest sister Clarissa on June 27, 1824. Perhaps her employer was John’s uncle, Roswell Mears, who had converted from Congregationalism to become a Baptist minister in the area, or perhaps she actually worked for John himself and her sister. A few years afterwards, Mehitable was indeed living with a sister when they moved to Bombay, New York: a settlement in Franklin County bordering on the St. Lawrence River and Quebec. Which sister she lived with is unclear; several of her sisters and their husbands moved to Bombay later in the 1820s: Clarissa and John Mears, and Eliza and Wesley Diggins. Her oldest brother Elonson joined them in Bombay with his Canadian wife around 1834, about the same time her sister Julia and her husband Enos Day also moved to Franklin County. Mehitable reportedly married Howard Cooper, probably in Bombay, New York in the early 1830s, but within a few years this marriage ended in divorce.
After the 1832 Black Hawk War, many pioneers pushed west beyond Chicago along old Indian trails in search of good farmland. In 1835, Mehitable moved to what would later become Harvard, Illinois to live with her sister Clarissa Mears. Clarissa’s husband John had died on their trip west that August via ox-team and covered wagon, leaving Clarissa with four young children and pregnant with a fifth, and Clarissa doubtless appreciated Mehitable’s help in establishing a new homestead on the frontier. Harvard is in McHenry County in northern Illinois, about 63 miles northwest of Chicago and about seven miles from the Wisconsin border. McHenry County was created the year after Mehitable and Clarissa arrived, and was named for a local volunteer in the Black Hawk War. Mehitable’s sister Eliza and Wesley Diggins were also some of the earliest settlers of Chemung, the township from which Harvard arose. While in Harvard, Mehitable met and married Gilbert M. Fox, an Ohio man some sixteen months her junior, and the couple soon decided to pioneer further west.
On June 27, 1839, Mehitable and Gilbert Fox arrived in Fairfield, Iowa, where Gilbert quickly found ready work as a skilled carpenter. At that time, downtown Fairfield was little more than prairie grass, purchased from the Sac and Fox Indians in the fall of 1837 and still in their possession until they withdrew to land eight miles west of town in October 1838. The county commissioners had staked out the new county seat in March 1839; James Snyder had surveyed the town plat that April, and the first town lots were sold in May. There were as yet no streets or sidewalks. When the Foxes arrived, the only building standing near the square was William Hueston’s little 10-by-12-foot log cabin, built early that spring where Larry’s Barber Shop now stands at 61 East Broadway. The next of note would be Thomas Dickey’s wooden tavern, built in July roughly where Revelations Café and Bookstore is now, at 112 North Main Street. Measuring 20 by 20 feet, Dickey’s tavern would by 1840 be lodging between 20 and 30 boarders in a close proximity which no doubt spurred them to build residences and shops of their own as quickly as possible, and Gilbert Fox was ready to help.
One of Gilbert’s earliest jobs was to build Fairfield’s first courthouse for contractor William Olney, father of Judge Cyrus Olney. Working into December of 1839 with Augustus Jackson, Gilbert erected a dignified two-story gable-roofed structure on the south corner of the west side of the Square, where the Teeple Hansen Gallery is now, at 60 South Main Street. This was the first building in town made of sawn wood rather than logs. Messrs. Fox and Jackson constructed the building so well that it was later moved just west to 109-111 West Burlington, at the corner of 2nd Street, where it served as a woodworking and blacksmith shop until it burned down in 1916.
The courthouse was an impressive landmark for a relatively small settlement. When Ebenezer Gage arrived that December and opened the second general store in Fairfield, there were still only seven families and three single men living in town. Material goods were scarce, and people shared what articles they had: The whole community used Mrs. Culbertson’s small copper kettle for making preserves, Mrs. Moberly’s large iron kettle for making soap, and Mehitable’s large brass kettle to do their washing. (“John W. Culbertson,” Portrait and Biographical Album, p. 334.)
Nonetheless the little community grew quickly, and by March of 1840 it boasted “twenty substantial buildings, including a fine courthouse, three stores, two groceries and two taverns, and it is thought at least 40 more will be erected the coming season.” Fairfield’s population then exceeded one hundred, “including ten or twelve house carpenters, three cabinet makers and various other mechanics, and two physicians and two attorneys at law.” (Burlington Hawkeye, March 12, 1840, cited in A Fair Field, pp. 376-377.)
Gilbert Fox and William Olney built Fairfield’s second tavern early in 1840 for Dr. Jeremiah S. Waugh. First called the Restoration House, later the Eagle Hotel and finally the Jefferson House, it stood where the Elks Club building is now, at 50-54 South Main Street. That year Gilbert also built their own house half a block west of the northwest corner of the square, at what is now 107-111 West Broadway, site of Walker’s Office Supplies, Inc. The Foxes first lived in a primitive log cabin with a stick chimney, but Gilbert soon built his wife the finest residence in town, made of sawn wood and with overlapping clapboards split from walnut logs. (Jefferson Co. Records, Vol. 5, p. 57; Jefferson County Republican, Sept. 6, 1901, p. 4, col. 3.) Before Charles P. David kept hotel or sold hardware in Fairfield, he did his first work in Iowa on the Fox house, boarding with Mehitable and her husband and getting $20 a month for his services. (Fairfield Ledger, Jan. 4, 1888, p. 3, col. 4.)
Also living with the couple in 1840 were Gilbert’s sister Nancy and her husband Farnum Whitcomb, whom Nancy married in Fairfield that April 19. Nancy and Farnum remained in Fairfield until 1843, when they purchased and settled on land in Ottumwa after the Indians sold it. Mehitable also maternally mentored the young Fairfield lawyers William H. Lyons and Thomas Gray as well as teenager Benjamin Frank Tillotson. As Lyons later recalled, “Frank Tillotson was our ‘handsome man,’ and shared with Tom Gray and myself the mother[ly] protection and kindly care of Aunt Hetty, than whom God never made a better.— Her care and advice saved me from many a trouble, and doubtless the others had equal cause to love and respect her.” (Fairfield Ledger, Sept. 20, 1882, p. 3, col. 7.) The 1840 U.S. Census listed six people living in Gilbert M. Fox’s household – one unidentified male aged 15-20; three males aged 20-30: probably Gilbert, Farnum Whitcomb, and Charles David; one female aged 15-20: probably Nancy Fox Whitcomb, who would be twenty in July; and one female aged 20-30: Mehitable herself.
Of Dr. Waugh’s west-side Restoration House and the stores at both corners of the east side of the square, Mehitable later recollected that her husband and William Olney shaped the timbers and framed them at the north corner of the west side of the square, at what is now 60 North Main Street and Century 21 Hayes-Heartland Real Estate, and after the timbers were shaped, “they had to wait until court week in order to get a force of men to raise them.” (Fairfield Ledger, May 9, 1883, p. 3, col. 7.)
Gilbert died young and evidently with some foreknowledge, for he signed his will on November 17, 1844 and died three weeks later on December 6, 1844, at the age of 31. He appointed his friend Thomas H. Gray as his executor. To his brother-in-law Farnum Whitcomb he willed a claim in Wapello County, and all of his “mechanic and other tools,” and “to my brother John Frakes, a full kit of Journeyman Joiner’s tools.” John Frakes was evidently not biologically related to Gilbert. Eight days after Gilbert died, Farnum signed a quitclaim deed for the Foxes’ homestead property at 107-111 West Broadway over to Mehitable
Mehitable C. Fox married Parish Ellis of Kentucky on July 26, 1846, when she was thirty-four and he was thirty-two. Parish and his two assistants were later recollected by Wm. H. Lyons in 1840 Fairfield: “On the east side of the square there was no building flush with the street. Parrish Ellis had a cabinet shop on the east end of the lot where Rodibaugh now has a harness store….”
The 1850 U. S. Census shows “Parishsh” Ellis (86-88) as a cabinet-maker. Living with Parish and “Mahetable” were Mrs. Fanning and Mrs. Wilson, both 50, from New York and Pennsylvania, respectively, and 25-year-old Milton Hutchins of Ohio. Parish Ellis then owned $2500 of real estate, a considerable amount for the time. John Ratliff, an early settler who had sold groceries and liquors at his store at 61 East Broadway, had in 1842 sold all his interest in 53-61 East Broadway for $500 to Ellis, who bought the same property for $400 in March 1843 from the Board of Commissioners of Jefferson County, Iowa Territory. That July Ellis sold 53-55 East Broadway to Davidson Murray for $50, but as of 1850 he still retained the three lots to the east, at 57-61 East Broadway. John Ratcliff died in 1846.
On March 22, 1851, Parish and his wife Mehitable sold 57 E. Broadway for $225 to William E. Sargent, a dealer in “foreign and domestic dry goods, queensware, hardware and cutlery, boots, shoes, hats, caps, groceries, &c.” Mr. Sargent evidently built here a brick building of three stories, the most substantial structure on the square for several years, and the only brick building on the north side for over two decades.
Parish Ellis passed away eight months later, on November 23, 1851, at the age of 38. Although widowed again, Mehitable did not live alone: The Iowa State Census of 1856, the household (238-248) of “Mahitable” Ellis also contained Robert Hasting, 30 and Mary Hasting, 27, both in Iowa for one year, and carpenter Samuel Hasting, 26, and Elizabeth Hasting, 24, both in Iowa for under a year, all born in Ohio, except perhaps Robert, who may have been born in Pennsylvania.
Not long afterwards, on August 12, 1856 Mehitable married her fourth and final husband: Joel Woods, a tailor. He too may have married before; in the U.S. Census of 1850, Joel Woods (707-713) was living in Keokuk as a 45-year old tailor born in Pennsylvania. Living with him were Sarah J., 32, Robert, 18, no occupation, Joel, 4, and Anna M., 1, all born in Pennsylvania. Joel Woods was a Master Mason in the Eagle Lodge No. 12 of Keokuk in 1857, but was suspended in 1863. It seems likely that Joel Woods of Keokuk was also Mehitable’s Joel.
Mehitable appeared on the Fairfield Ledger’s April 1858 list of resident delinquent taxpayers, for owing unpaid taxes on her home on West Broadway. (Fairfield Ledger, April 29, 1858, p. 4, col. 1: “Resident Delinquent List of Fairfield Township. Mehitable Woods, lot 7 blk 7 o p)
In July of 1858 the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush began, and soon Mehitable outfitted Joel to mine for gold in Colorado. In the spring of the following year Joel wrote her a letter informing her of the death of former Fairfielder Dr. William R. Paxson, who drowned in the north fork of the Blue River on May 5, 1859, en route to Pike’s Peak. As the Ledger noted, ”Many of our citizens will remember this gentleman, who resided in our city six or eight months. He is now dead, having found a watery grave. By a letter from Joel Woods to his wife in this city, we learn that on the 5th of May, the company which Dr. Paxson was in made a raft on which to cross the north fork of Blue River, and having got nearly all their things over they were crossing for the last time, when Dr. P. and a man named West fell overboard, and were drowned…. The body of Dr. P. was not found. This occurrence cast a gloom over the company, and, together with the bad news from Pike’s Peak, was quite disheartening. Dr. Paxson was much liked and respected in our city, and leaves a number of friends to mourn his loss.”
Indeed, many Pike’s Peakers were quickly disillusioned by the gloomy reports of returning miners, and turned back even before reaching Colorado. The Ledger added, “Returned: A large number of Pike’s Peakers … have returned within a few days past. Among the number… Johnston Moore…Gardner McGaw…”) (Fairfield Ledger, June 3, 1859, p. 3, col. 1)
The records on Joel Woods are scanty and contradictory; most say Joel died soon after going to Colorado. But by 1860 he had evidently returned at least for a short while to Fairfield, where he was enumerated in the Census that year as “Joel W. Wood” (1255-1102), 52, born in Pennsylvania, no occupation, owning $5900 of real estate and $900 of personal estate. With him and “Hettie,” listed as being 44 from Vermont, was Joseph Wood, 14, born in Pennsylvania. The younger Joel Woods who had been living with him in Keokuk was apparently 14 now and living in 1860 in the Penn Township household (597-554) of William Ramsay, 47, farmer and Jane Ramsay, 29, domestic, both of Ireland.
However, it is again Mehitable, not Joel, who appeared in the Fairfield Ledger as owing back taxes on her properties on West and East Broadway in September 1860. (September 7-14 FFL, 1-7: Delinquent Lands and Lots…for which Taxes are Due and Unpaid…. Mehitable Woods, op Lot 7, Block 7, 8.61, 1.45, 10.06; e ½ Lot 8, Block 8, 6.06, 1.06, 7.12) And Hetty’s husband did evidently return to Colorado Territory, where four years later he was elected to represent Colorado’s 10th District in the House of Representatives in February 1864. That February 25, Joel chaired the Committee of the Whole, which considered H. B. No. 26, “an act to amend an act to enable Road, Ditch and other Companies to become bodies corporate,” and on March 5, he chaired a special committee to consider H. B. No. 53, “an act to incorporate the Cash Creek and Lake County Gold Mining Company.” (House Journal of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Colorado: Third Session: Begun at Golden City, on the 1st day of February, 1864. Adjourned to Denver on the 4th day of February. Denver: Byers & Dailey, 1864, pp. 3, 4, 118-119, 190-191.)
Only three months later, Joel was shot and killed in a hunting accident that June near Ft. Whipple, Arizona Territory, where he was buried. Though it is commonly reported he was on vacation, he had evidently been residing in Arizona for several months by that time, as the Arizona Territory Census of April 1864 shows (No. 1074) Joel Woods (Dec’d) [comment probably inserted in June], 59 years old, married, born in Pennsylvania, a resident for 2 months, from Iowa, occupation farmer. Joel’s burial was the very first in the new Citizens Cemetery, founded in early June 1864 just east of Prescott. His June 22, 1864 obituary in the Arizona Miner stated that the “Hon. Mr. Woods was buried on a beautiful ground just east of the town (Prescott, southwest of Ft. Whipple) which will be reserved for a public cemetery.” The graveyard is now called Citizen’s Cemetery; Joel’s gravestone has since been lost.
Meanwhile, back in Fairfield, the outbreak of the Civil War had provided the long-separated Mehitable with ample opportunity to serve her community and her nation. In 1861, the Fairfield Ladies’ Aid Society had sewn uniforms and equipment for Fairfield’s soldiers, and sent them a few boxes of stores. Then Mrs. Woods became the Society’s agent, and on April 3, 1862 took a quantity of supplies to the hospitals in Keokuk, where she remained for most of the summer to help nurse the sick and wounded soldiers.
As 1862 drew to a close and the North’s prospects looked ever darker, Mehitable told the Society that she thought her services were no longer needed at Keokuk, and if she could obtain the proper passes she would take the supplies to where they were most needed – into the field. The Society soon obtained three passes for her: one from General Samuel R. Curtis to visit all of the regiments in his department of the Northwest, one from General George H. Thomas, and one from Secretary Stanton of the War Department. Governor Kirkwood also gave her a Major’s commission – practically unheard of for a woman at the time – to enable her to cut the army’s red tape more effectively. By later accounts, “Mrs. Major Woods” made thirteen trips to the southwest, taking nine cargoes weighing between two and thirty-seven tons each.
On January 28, 1863 Mrs. Woods left Fairfield with 5,000 pounds of supplies for the 19th Iowa Regiment at Springfield, Missouri. On arriving at St. Louis she found the countryside was too disturbed for her to proceed, so she distributed her stores to the hospitals in St. Louis and returned home.
On March 18, 1863 Mehitable took 4,096 pounds of stores on her first trip down the Mississippi to support Iowa soldiers in the Deep South. She traveled incognito, informing only the necessary authorities of her plans. When asked where she was going, she invariably replied, “To see my sons, all of whom are in the army.” Thus though childless, she became a mother to thousands, and indeed was forever afterwards known as “Mother Woods.” She brought supplies to the 3rd Iowa Cavalry at Pilot Knob, Missouri; to the 4th Iowa Cavalry at Helena, Arkansas, and to the 30th Iowa Infantry at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, near Vicksburg.
On April 2 the Fairfield Ledger printed a letter from Benjamin F. Crail, Captain of Co. F, 3rd Iowa Cavalry, thanking the people of Jefferson County for the “sanitary stores” Mrs. Woods had delivered the day before, which were “devoured in double quick, as they came from Iowa and home. There were seven boxes, containing luxuries such as butter, eggs, potatoes, onions, dried fruit, canned fruit, pickles, jellies, preserves, cakes, chickens, some choice native wine, and numerous other articles, which caused a general rejoicing in Co. F, and which reminded us that there are those at home who have not forgotten that they have husbands, sons, and brothers in the army….”
As the 30th Iowa Infantry had taken heavy losses in battle and suffered greatly from exposure that winter in trying to redirect the Mississippi River, the regiment was in dire need and Mehitable returned to Fairfield as quickly as she could to bring them more supplies. Bringing 12,011 pounds of stores donated by the people of Fairfield and her surrounding townships, Glasgow, Washington, Brighton, and Mt. Pleasant, Mehitable left Fairfield on May 21 and again reached the 30th Iowa by early June of 1863. The regiment had hundreds of sick and wounded, and had all been on inferior half-rations for some time, but was then participating in Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. While in the rear of Vicksburg, Mrs. Woods came under fire twice, but “ran like a good fellow” and escaped from harm.
She returned home by mid-September, and immediately the ladies began receiving and preparing vast quantities of fruit, vegetables, chickens, eggs, and so on for Mrs. Woods to take back to the troops. On Sept. 17, the Ledger added that, “Dressed chickens may be brought in at any time, and will be immediately cooked and canned…. Contributions may be left with Mrs. Woods, or at Dr. Clarke’s Drug Store,” which was at 60 North Main, where Century 21 Hayes-Heartland Real Estate is now.
On September 30 Mrs. Woods departed again for Vicksburg with 3,814 pounds of stores. Finding herself unable to reach her targeted regiments, in October she bestowed the supplies mainly upon Company M of the 4th Iowa Cavalry, who were near the Big Black River in Mississippi.
On November 19, the Ledger announced, “Changed Quarters: The ladies of the Aid Society have procured the old Post Office building, three doors west of the South-West corner of the Park, and will occupy it as a packing room. Contributions for the soldiers will be left there. The key will be at the saddlery shop of George Howell,” which was at 60 S. Main, on the site of the original courthouse built by Gilbert Fox. The Ledger continued, “Mrs. Woods will start for the 2nd Iowa on Monday or Tuesday,” November 23 or 24. It concluded, “A load of wood at the packing room would be thankfully received. Who will take it there?” (Fairfield Ledger, November 19, 1863, p. 3, col.1)
On her last venture of 1863, Mrs. M. E. Woods left Fairfield on November 23 with 7,282 pounds of stores for the front. Just before Christmas she reached the 2nd and the 7th Iowa Regiments, then quartered at Pulaski, Tennessee. The “boys” of the 2nd Iowa’s Company E immediately detailed Fairfield’s Robert Locke “for special service in the culinary department and, if the account of it by one of them may be believed, enjoyed a memorable dinner.” (Charles J. Fulton, History of Jefferson County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement, 1912, Vol. I, p. 366.)
(Perhaps encouraged by his success, after the war Robert Locke opened a restaurant on the west side of the square. In “John Williamson of Hardscrabble,” fellow-soldier Moses McCoid wrote that Robert Locke had kidnapped a notable English girl as a baby to claim her as his daughter, revealing his dark secret to another soldier in an unguarded moment during the War. The girl was later adopted by John Williamson and his wife.)
On that same trip, Mrs. Woods also brought much-needed supplies to the 10th and 30th Iowa Regiments at Bridgeport and Woodville, Alabama, with stores for the 4th Iowa Cavalry as well. All of her visits were timely, as both field and hospital rations were scarce.
In late February of 1864, the Ledger announced, “Mrs. Woods will soon leave for Little Rock. All those desiring to leave donations will please leave them immediately at Dr. Shaffer’s office, P.O. Building…” (Fairfield Ledger, Feb. 25, 1864, p. 3, col. 1.) Although Dr. J. M. Shaffer and his brother Christopher then co-owned 52 N. Main and the doctor later kept his office upstairs there, during rhe Civil War years the post office was in Crawford & Acheson’s grocery store, at 61 S. Court.
Mehitable left Fairfield on March 14, 1864, bringing supplies to the 36th and 33rd Infantry at Little Rock, Arkansas. Secretary Mrs. David Acheson of the Ladies’ Aid Society announced that Mrs. Woods had left with “16 boxes, 6 kegs, and 1 barrel of Sanitary stores, weighing 2,873 lbs., and containing 329 dozen of eggs, 193 lbs. butter, 34 towels, 43 cans blackberries, 10 qts. Blackberry cordial, 10 lbs. dried apples, 1 peck apples, &c.” The citizens of Brighton had also donated a barrel of sauerkraut, a keg of apple butter, two kegs of pickles, and $20 in cash. Other gifts included a bag of dried apples from Mrs. Long, eleven cans of fruit from Mrs. Marsh, and three cans of fruit and 14 dozen eggs from Mrs. G. W. Workman. (Fairfield Ledger, March 17, 1864, p. 3, col.1)
On May 5, 1864, Mrs. Woods departed Fairfield with 83 packages weighing 11,135 lbs, which she brought to the Iowa regiments in the 15th Army Corps in Tennessee. Included were donations from Brighton, Salina, and Glasgow. An appreciative letter to Ledger’s editor W. W. Junkin asked, “Would it not be a pleasant surprise for Mrs. Woods to come home and find her home painted? I know that she wanted to do it when home last, but spent all her time in preparing Sanitary stores…. We can all see that she is fast wearing out in the service. Let us do what we can to make her stay with us as pleasant as possible…” (Fairfield Ledger, May 19, 1864, p. 3, col. 1)
As Mrs. Woods was preparing for her last trip of 1864, the ardent Republican W. W. Junkin noted, “On Saturday the ladies of the Aid Society requested us to collect funds to defray Mrs. Woods’ expenses to the 19th Iowa, with supplies for the boys. We wished to make a collection on the Park after the discussion between [Republican Congressional candidate James F.] Wilson and [Democratic candidate Joseph K.] Hornish had ended. For this purpose we selected a committee to collect…. Out of the four Republicans whom we asked only one could not serve; but out of seven Democrats whom we asked only one could serve.… Not wishing to do injustice to any one we would state that several Democrats contributed liberally. The whole amount raised was $19.35.” (Fairfield Ledger, Oct. 20, 1864, p. 3, col. 1.)
Much of the 19th Iowa Infantry had been captured by Confederates in September 1863 at the disastrous Battle of Sterling Plantation near Morganza, Louisiana. The unfortunate Union men were finally exchanged in early July 1864, after forced marches of hundreds of miles on very poor rations, and with no change of clothing for over a year. In September 1864, an anonymous member of the 19th’s Co. D. wrote to the Ledger from the regiment’s garrison on the barrier-island of Ft. Barrancas near Pensacola, Florida, saying, “If any of our friends think of sending us a present and are anxious to send the most valuable, an egg, sweet potato, pumpkin or cabbage-head would be sure to fit the bill.” Some days later Major Harry Jordan of the 19th wrote to Mrs. Woods requesting a shipment of antiscorbutics for the scurvy from which the men were suffering. Receiving the letters in October, Fairfielders responded immediately by preparing pickles and sauces and gathering general stores over the next month for the beleaguered 19th Iowa.
In November Mrs. Woods took two train-carloads of stores from Fairfield via Chicago, where the Northwest Sanitary Commission added still more supplies bringing her total to 37 tons, which she brought by way of Memphis, Tennessee to New Orleans. From there she intended to take a boat for Ft. Gaines on Dauphin Island, Alabama, at the head of Mobile Bay, where the 19th Iowa had been transferred. A sanitary officer attempted to dissuade her, saying she could not reach her destination, and the vessel she was using was unsafe; if she would turn her stores over to him, he would see to their proper distribution. Mrs. Woods insisted upon going herself. The officer became angry and said, “You shall not!” to which she answered, “I have a pass from the Government.” The officer replied, “You could not go if you had a pass from Heaven!” Mehitable then produced her pass and said, “No power on earth will keep me from going!” and the officer’s assumed authority shriveled up, she reported later, like a “caterpillar on a hot shovel.”
As Mrs. Woods arrived on the island, she encountered several thousand soldiers in pitiable condition and in great need of her supplies. She remained there a month, and on Christmas Day feasted heartily on Iowa crackers and fresh butter, together with large fresh oysters gathered from the ocean.
Mehitable apparently made one final trip, to Milliken’s Bend in April 1865, as the Civil War was drawing to a close. Thus Major Woods ended a heroic war-time career which had made her probably the most famous, and certainly the most loved, woman in all of Iowa.
In February 1866, “Mehetable E. Woods, formerly Mehetable E. Ellis widow of Parish Ellis dec’d,” sold her property at 59 East Broadway to Evan L. Craine and Nancy J. Craine, wife of George Craine, for $1,000, with these reservations: “Whereas a certain shop building owned by me and situated on the north part of the east third of same lot [i.e., 61 E. Broadway and 100-110 N. Court] projects a few feet over upon the premises herein conveyed, now the use free of cost of so much of said premises as is occupied by said building is reserved so long as said building shall stand.” (Warranty Deed dated 2/13/1866, recorded 2/16/1866 in Jefferson Co. Deed Records Book 4, p. 140.)
Around this time, some twenty years after John Ratcliff died, his heirs asserted that in 1842 John had feared his alcoholism was leading him to ruin and so had signed his property at 53-61 East Broadway over to Parish Ellis in trust for Ratcliff and his family. As Parish or Mehitable had now sold all the old Ratcliff land but 61 East Broadway, the heirs petitioned to reclaim that last property, but could produce no legal evidence that Ratcliff’s deed to Parish Ellis was in trust and not absolute.
And so that summer “Mahetable Woods, formerly Mahetable Ellis and now the widow of Joel Woods dec’d,” sold her last property on the Square — 61 East Broadway and 100-110 North Court — to George W. Vance for $3000. (Warranty Deed 7/26/1866, recorded 8/4/1866 in Jefferson County Deed Records Book 4, p. 231.)
Around 1868 Mehitable left Iowa and headed to California, where she remained several years before finally returning to Fairfield on October 28, 1870. While in California she lived in San Francisco with her sister and brother-in-law, Eliza and Wesley Diggins. The 1870 U.S. Census shows her in the household (1452-1371) of the 63-year-old Wesley, who was then a well-off street contractor owning $15,000 of real estate and $5,000 of personal estate. With him was his wife Eliza, also 63, keeping house, and three sons, who were also all street contractors: Augustus Carlyle, 34, with $15,000 in real and $5,000 of personal estate; Julius C., 32, with $6,000 in real and $5,000 in personal estate; and Byron, 9 with $6,000 in real and $5,000 in personal estate. Both parents were born in Vermont; the two older boys were born in Indiana, and the youngest in Illinois. Mehitable appeared in his household as M. E. Woods, 61, without occupation, owning $3,500 in real estate and $5,000 in personal estate, born in Vermont. Also living in the Diggins household were O. F. Bacon, a 25-year old teamster from Massachusetts; George Dayton, a 40-year-old teamster from New Hampshire; Washoe Lawton, 9, attending school, place of birth unknown; and Bug Hong, 11, a domestic servant from China.
Wesley and Eliza Diggins had followed Eliza’s sisters Clarissa Mears and Mehitable to Harvard (then called Chemung), McHenry Co., Illinois in 1838; nearly fifty years later the old Diggins farmhouse still stood on the corner of 3rd and Diggins Streets. Wesley quickly attained some prominence; he was a justice of the peace in 1839, the same year he was elected a Steward for the Methodist Episcopal Church at its first quarterly-meeting held at Round Prairie. He dammed Kishwaukee Creek and built a sawmill in 1840 in nearby Hartland Township — a community called Brookdale grew up around his mill — and was a delegate from McHenry Co. in the 1846 Chicago River-and-Harbor Convention, as well as the 1847 Constitutional Convention.
Wesley first explored San Francisco during the Gold Rush, when he gave a sworn statement on July 2, 1851 to the Committee of Vigilance about the theft of his trunk. Perhaps Wesley had only gone West on a business trip, for he soon returned to Illinois, and was a County Supervisor from Chemung in 1852, 1853 and 1856, a State Representative in 1854-55, and a delegate from McHenry County to the Republican state convention in 1856. He erected the Ayer Hotel in Harvard in 1859. That same year, though, Wesley sold his farm and hotel to fellow-Vermonter Henry Carlos Blackman and moved his family to San Francisco, where he was a lumber dealer in 1860. Here he soon welcomed his dear friend from Harvard, Illinois, the young Edward E. Ayer, and gave him a job in his sawmill. From arriving in San Francisco almost penniless, Ayer grew up to become a famed bibliophile and a substantial donor to Chicago’s Newberry Library. (Edward E. Ayer, “How I Bought My First Book,” The Newberry Library Bulletin, December 1950, http://www.newberry.org/collections/Ayer_How_I.html.)
In the San Francisco Directory of 1863-64, the Diggins family lived on Sutter St. near Divisadero St., and maintained their mining, stocks and oil business of Wesley Diggins & Son at 18 Government House. When both Wesley and his son Augustus Diggins signed a petition to repeal the mortgage tax law in 1870, they gave their address as Sutter St., near Broderick St., which is only one block west of Divisadero. It appears safe to say that when Mehitable visited Wesley and Eliza, she stayed with them on Sutter Street between Broderick and Divisadero Streets. Two years after Mehitable left California, Wesley became a staunch member of the Seventh-Day Adventists, and in September 1875 was a delegate of the San Francisco Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
After Mehitable returned to Fairfield she resumed her sociable ties with the community. As Fairfield Ledger editor W. W. Junkin commented in February 1879, “Some of the early settlers had a pleasant re-union, Wednesday night last, at the residence of Mrs. M.E. Woods. They had a joyous good time in recounting the trials and troubles of the early settlement of the county. Why can’t Jefferson county have a general re-union of old settlers? It would prove a pleasant and profitable feast.” (Fairfield Ledger, Feb. 5, 1879, p. 3, col. 6.) Mehitable evidently sowed the seeds for the first annual reunion of Old Settlers of Jefferson County, held October 9th that same year at Slagle & Acheson’s Grove, now known as Chautauqua Park.
On Valentine’s Day of 1882, Mrs. Woods invited everyone to an oyster supper at her “hospitable residence” to benefit the ladies of the Congregational Church. Perhaps the oysters reminded Mehitable of that Christmas Dinner of 1864 she spent with the soldiers of the 19th Iowa on Dauphin Island. The feast was doubtless well attended and heartily enjoyed, netting $42.10 for the church. (Fairfield Ledger, Feb. 8, 1882, p. 3, col. 5; Feb. 15, 1882, p. 3, col. 5.) On June 17 that year, a horrific tornado struck the town of Malcom, Iowa, killing ten people and wounding more than sixty, and demolishing five business buildings, both churches, and about a third of the houses. By July 5, Mehitable Woods had collected over $80 worth of goods and distributed them to the townsfolk of Malcom.
On December 22, 1886, Senator James F. Wilson introduced a bill in the Senate to grant a pension to Mrs. Woods for her services as a nurse and friend to the soldiers in the Civil War. Around February 1887, she reportedly was granted a well-deserved pension of $25 per month.
Mrs. Mehitable Ellis Woods also sponsored the Ellis Hose Company, the predecessor of Fairfield’s modern fire deparment. In May 1889, the Ledger commented: “A Fireman’s Banquet. Mrs. Ellis Woods, who named the Ellis Hose Company of this city and who exercises a motherly supervision over “the boys” who compose that excellent organization, received a number of her friends at the hose house last evening. Invitations were restricted to the hose boys, their wives or ladies and a few other friends. The rooms were handsomely and tastily decorated for the occasion, and the guests were seated at two prettily arranged tables for the banquet, covers being laid for 50 persons. The menu embraced all the delicacies of the season, and, thanks to Mrs. Woods and her lady friends, the viands were finely arranged and tastily served. The banquet proved a veritable feast…. Upon its conclusion C. M. Junkin returned general thanks to the hostess, her boys and the ladies who had assisted in the affair, and after an hour or more of social pleasures the guests departed. Of the many entertainments which Mrs. Woods has prepared for the lads who bear her name this was certainly the finest….” (Fairfield Ledger, May 10, 1889, p. 3, col. 5.)
That same month, Mehitable made preparations for her last great journey, and wrote her last will and testament. Dated May 27, 1889, her will bequeathed $1000 to the city of Fairfield, of which $100 was to be paid out annually to her beloved Ellis Hose Company. She also donated her house and land at 107-111 West Broadway to the city, with the proviso that city accept the bequest within a year and erect a brick or stone city hall and market house on the site within five years.
On Wednesday, September 23, 1891, her old friend Captain B. F. Crail and another friend were passing by Mehitable’s house when they heard moans. They opened the door, and found the venerable lady upon the floor. She asked them to send for a doctor, but within a few moments she quietly passed away.
Her funeral took place on Thursday afternoon at her old home, attended by thousands of people. Her coffin was draped with the Union flag, and the house overflowed with beautiful floral offerings. The Ellis Hose boys gave a pillow with the words, “Our Mother”; the G.A.R. and the Women’s Relief Corps gave appropriate designs; the Order of the Eastern Star and Daughters of Rebekah offered their society emblems in flowers.
The funeral procession stretched all the way from the park to the cemetery, including every vehicle in the city, and the cemetery was already filled with people when the first carriage reached the gates. Members of the Ellis Hose Company and the George Strong G.A.R. Post took turns as her pallbearers. The Order of the Eastern Star conducted her graveside service, and the Daughters of Rebekah placed their regalia in the grave with the body. Mrs. Woods belonged to all of these orders, and all took part in the funeral procession and services. Brass and martial bands, city officials, three hundred soldiers including men high in military and civil life, and hundreds of citizens participated in the funeral exercises. Fairfield had never paid such a tribute to the memory of one of her citizens as it did to Mrs. Woods.
Mehitable’s beautiful monument is eleven feet tall and ornately carved of gray Barre granite. It carries this tribute:
ANGEL TO IOWA
SOLDIERS IN THE
FIELD, THE AGENT
OF THE LADIES
AID SOCIETY AND
A MAJOR BY
A FRIEND OF EVERY
GOOD CAUSE AND
OF ALL WHO WERE
IN TROUBLE OR
DISTRESS AND THE
MOTHER OF THE ELLIS
For Mehitable Ellis Wood’s Find A Grave Memorial, see http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=52589855
Some months after her will’s deadline had elapsed, the city did decide to accept Mrs. Woods’ legacy of her home, and on March 2, 1893 they paid her grand-nephew Ellis Parrish $500.00 for a quitclaim on the property, conveying all of his interest as the residuary legatee from Fairfield’s not complying with the terms of the will. Ellis was the son of Julia (Diggins) and Nathan Parrish, and grandson of Mehitable’s sister Eliza (Owens) and Wesley Diggins. (Quitclaim dated dated 2 March 1893; filed 13 March 1893 in Jefferson County Deed Book 36, p. 480.)
On March 1, 1899 the city reported laying a new floor in the Woods building, and on April 26 that year the committee on property was instructed to repair the fence around the Woods property. On September 6, 1901, the Jefferson County Republican reported that Mehitable’s old friend Moses A. McCoid had purchased her old house — then the oldest house in Fairfield — and was having it moved out onto his lot on North Main Street. William Coop, then 63, was removing a large tree which had been planted near her house in 1851. (Jefferson County Republican, Sept. 6, 1901, p. 4, col. 3; Jefferson Co. Records, Vol. 5, p. 57.)