Friday, May 8, 2015

There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters

This Sunday is Mother’s Day, a day that likely would have been tinged with sadness for Alice and William Miner, who both lost their mothers when they were very young. Will was only four when his mother, Martha Clapp Miner, died; Alice was seven when Louisa Saunders Trainer died. They were both fortunate, however, in that they both had older sisters who did their best to step into the places left vacant by the loss of their mothers. We have put together a new exhibit in the Weaving Room to honor Will’s sister, Jottie Mitchell (1854-1910), and Alice’s sisters, Matilda (1851-1916), Bertha (1856-1927), and Louisa Trainer (1861-1932).


Jottie in the early 1860s
Emma Josephine Miner, known as “Jottie,” was Will’s only sibling. She was born on April 23, 1854, in Salem, New York. In 1861, the family moved to Juneau, Wisconsin. Will was born here on October 22, 1862. Martha Miner’s health had always been fragile, and it grew worse after Will’s birth; increasingly, it was Jottie who took responsibility for taking care of her little brother. A visitor to the Miner home during this time recalled, “How brave dear Mrs. Miner was and how solemn it all seemed to me. A few more months and the dear wife and mother was gone and the little boy motherless. The daughter, some eight or ten years older, was the little mother of the family.”

Martha Miner died in March 1867, and William Miner soon married Janet Mitchell, a widow with a son of her own. The family relocated to Maumee, Ohio. In 1872, Jottie married Janet’s son, John B. Mitchell, and moved to Lafayette, Indiana, where he worked for the Wabash Railroad. William Miner, Sr., died in 1873, and Jottie—still only nineteen herself and with a newborn baby to care for—felt that the best course of action was to send young Will to live with his Uncle John and Aunt Huldah in Chazy.


Photo of Jottie taken in Ann Arbor
while studying medicine
Jottie and John maintained a regular correspondence with Will, and it was John who ultimately suggested that Will come out to Lafayette to learn the railroad construction business. Letters from the 1880s show that Will and Jottie sometimes had a difficult relationship, but they were fundamentally devoted to each other. As time passed, their roles seemed to reverse, as Jottie (who was widowed in 1892) drew more and more upon Will for financial and emotional support. 

With two teenage children to care for, Jottie was determined to find a way to support herself. She began taking science courses at Purdue University, with the idea that she might become a nurse or pharmacist. But Jottie found that she had a real aptitude for medicine, and determined to become a physician—a rather unconventional decision for any woman to make in the 1890s. Jottie persisted, and in 1901 she received her medical degree from the University of Michigan. After working for a time in Detroit, London, and Vienna, she returned to practice in Lafayette. Sadly, her medical career was a brief one, as she died of complications of tonsillitis in 1910.


Matilda Trainer, 1880s
Alice was the youngest of the four Trainer sisters. Matilda was the oldest girl and began helping to support the family when she was only fourteen, becoming a teacher at Goderich Central School. When Mrs. Trainer died after giving birth to twins (who also died a few months later), it was Tillie who stepped in as surrogate mother to the younger children. Around 1887, the sisters and their youngest brother, William, moved to Chicago so they could be close to their older brothers.


Bertha Trainer, ca. 1905
Though we don’t know much about the Trainer sisters’ life in Chicago, they seem to have enjoyed the many opportunities for music, art, theater, and shopping that the great city afforded. They all learned to ride bicycles and went “wheeling” at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Leisurely summers were spent at Paw Paw Lake in Michigan, and they were all adventurous travelers, even venturing out on camels to see the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Louisa and Alice, who were only two years apart, were especially close, and they took at least one long trip to Europe together in 1904.

As Alice and William began spending more time at Heart’s Delight Farm, the sisters decided that they too would live in Chazy. Eventually they moved into Hillbrook, a building William constructed in the village of Chazy in 1910. The bottom floor of Hillbrook held the power plant connected to the hydroelectric dam on the Little Chazy River, and the sisters had an apartment on the top floor. Alice frequently walked from Heart’s Delight to Hillbrook to visit her sisters, play cards, and do needlework, and when William was away on business she liked to stay there overnight. 


Our only individual portrait
of Louisa Trainer
Though they were newcomers to the town, the Trainer sisters became beloved figures in Chazy. Matilda died in 1916, but Bertha and Louisa had many years to become part of the community. Louisa was known for her dedication to Physicans Hospital, and received a medal for her Red Cross service during World War I. It must have been very difficult for Alice, losing both her husband and her last surviving sister within such a short period of time. While Alice had many friends in Chazy, Chicago, and Goderich, nobody could ever replace her beloved sisters.



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