Albion Fellows Bacon
Indiana’s Municipal Housekeeper
Robert G. Barrows
Examines the career of a leading Progressive Era reformer.
Born in Evansville, Indiana, in 1865, Albion Fellows was reared in the nearby hamlet of McCutchanville and graduated from Evansville High School. She worked for several years as a secretary and court reporter, toured Europe with her sister, married local merchant Hilary Bacon in 1888, and settled into a seemingly comfortable routine of middle-class domesticity. In 1892, however, she was afflicted with an illness that lasted for several years, an illness that may have resulted from a real or perceived absence of outlets for her intelligence and creativity.
Bacon eventually found such outlets in a myriad of voluntary associations and social welfare campaigns. She was best known for her work on behalf of tenement reform and was instrumental in the passage of legislation to improve housing conditions in Indiana. She was also involved in child welfare, city planning and zoning, and a variety of public health efforts. Bacon became Indiana’s foremost "municipal houskeeper," a Progressive Era term for women who applied their domestic skills to social problems plaguing their communities.
She also found time to write about her social reform efforts and her religious faith in articles and pamphlets. She published one volume of children’s stories, and authored several pageants. One subject she did not write about was women’s suffrage. While she did not oppose votes for women, suffrage was never her priority. But the reality of her participation in public affairs did advance the cause of women’s political equality and provided a role model for future generations.
Robert G. Barrows, Associate Professor of History at Indiana University at Indianapolis, was previously an editor at the Indiana Historical Bureau. He has published several journal articles and book chapters dealing with Indiana history and American urba
About the Author
Robert G. Barrows is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University at Indianapolis. He previously worked as an editor at the Indiana Historical Bureau. He has published several journal articles and book chapters dealing with Indiana history and American urban history, and he co-edited the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (Indiana University Press, 1994).
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Albion Fellows Bacon
Indiana's Municipal Housekeeper
By Robert G. Barrows
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2000 Robert G. Barrows
All rights reserved.
The Sheltered Life
In the laconic style of the day the Evansville Daily Journal of March 4, 1865, reported the sad, unexpected news: "Died on Thursday, March 2d, Rev. Albion Fellows, aged thirty-eight years." The paper advised that the funeral was scheduled for the next day at the Locust Street Methodist Episcopal Church, the congregation the deceased had served for the past few years. Two days later the Journal noted that the "peculiarly solemn and impressive" service had been attended by a "vast assemblage." The death of a relatively young man was no novelty in 1865, of course, given the carnage that the nation had endured during four years of civil war. Still, Evansville's residents probably felt particular sympathy for Fellows's widow, Mary, who was left with two young children and was pregnant with another. When this third child arrived several weeks later, Mary honored the memory of her late husband by naming her new daughter after him. Thus, in just over a month, Indiana's "Pocket City" witnessed the burial of one Albion Fellows and the birth of another.
The Reverend Albion Fellows had been born near Sandwich, Carroll County, New Hampshire, in 1827. His family's American roots went deep, to the Great Migration of the 1630s when forebear William Fellows emigrated from England to Ipswich, Massachusetts. When he was seven, Fellows's family resettled in the vicinity of Dixon, Illinois, in the northwestern corner of that state. In the late 1840s he attended Rock River Seminary in nearby Mt. Morris and, eventually, moved on to Indiana Asbury (later DePauw) University, in Greencastle. There he followed a theological course, tutored younger students, and was graduated and ordained in 1854* That year or the next (the sources disagree) he married Mary Erskine, a native of McCutchanville, Indiana, a small village in Vanderburgh County eight miles north of Evansville. Mary had just completed a two-year course of study at the Greencastle Female Collegiate Seminary.
Most of Mary Erskine's life prior to her marriage had been spent in the small, tightly knit community of McCutchanville, and her father and two brothers lived there still. Mary's father, John Erskine, had been bom in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1797, emigrated with his family, and settled in McCutchanville in 1820, just four years after the Hoosier state had been admitted to the Union. Five years later John wed Harriett Igleheart, whose parents (Levi and Anne Eleanor Taylor Igleheart) had "left Maryland because for conscience's sake they had freed their slaves and then found it impossible to continue the old régime without them." They moved to Kentucky in 1815 and then in 1823 to a farm in Warrick County, Indiana, about seven miles east of McCutchanville. John Erskine and Harriett Igleheart's union produced eight children; Mary, born in 1828, was the second child and the first daughter.
Mary Erskine's childhood and youth were typical of pioneer life in frontier Indiana. At a very early age she was given responsibility for care of younger siblings; later she carded wool, spun yarn, helped make soap and candles, and endured the deprivations resulting from (for example) the once-a-year delivery of sugar up the rivers from New Orleans. Religious services were held at her grandfather Levi's house, the largest in the village, "and then only a few times a year when an itinerant minister came that way." Schooling was equally problematic since it "did not last more than eight or ten weeks then, and most of her studying had to be done at home between tasks." Her brother Joseph, two years her senior, planted the seeds of desire for a more thoroughgoing education, promising that when she was eighteen the two of them would go off to college. But during the summer of her eighteenth year (1846), her mother died in an epidemic. "She had carried the load of eldest sister in a family of nine," one of her daughters wrote years later; "now she must be mother as well, with the youngest just a baby." Then Joseph, too, "was swept out of her life by a sudden swift illness." The hope of further education was put away for a time, as there was "only work and more work, the meeting of a mother's problems with a girl's inexperience."
By the early 1850s, however, the old dreams rekindled, not only for herself but for her younger brothers and sisters as well. Thus, in the fall of 1852, Mary and three siblings traveled to Greencastle, rented rooms, and began their studies, the two brothers "going boldly up the college steps" while the sisters were "slipping timidly in by the door of the Ladies' Seminary." So successful was the arrangement that they returned the following fall with another sister and two cousins. This year, however, was marred by an outbreak of typhoid that claimed the life of one of the cousins and required a lengthy convalescence by one sister. These difficulties meant that Mary's second year at the college was "irregular and disappointing." Still, she had made the most of her opportunity and fulfilled a long-time dream. And she had met Albion Fellows.
After his ordination the Reverend Fellows joined the North-West Indiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and he and Mary embarked upon the peripatetic life of a Methodist minister. They spent a year or two following their marriage first at Valparaiso (Porter County) and then at Westville (La Porte County). By 1857, when their daughter Lura was born, Fellows was a professor of Greek at the denomination's Fort Wayne College. (A family genealogy records Lura's birthplace as McCutchanville, suggesting that Mary may have returned temporarily to her childhood home to be with relatives during the late stages of her pregnancy.) Following his transfer to the Indiana Conference in the southern part of the state, Fellows pastored during 1859–1860 in Boonville, the seat of Warrick County. In the latter year a census enumerator listed him as a Methodist minister with modest holdings of real and personal property ($600 and $300, respectively). After brief stays (1860–1862) in Patoka (Gibson County) and Mt. Vernon (Posey County), the family moved to Evansville, the largest city in southwestern Indiana and, with 11,500 residents as of 1860, the third largest city in the state. The Evansville directory for 1863 reported that Rev. Albion Fellows lived at 66 South Second Street; while it did not list him as the pastor of any of the Methodist congregations recorded in the "church directory," the volume did give his occupation as "presiding elder." The year 1863 also saw the addition of another daughter to the family; like her older sister, Anna (generally known as Annie) was born at McCutchanville.
Two years later Fellows's residence had not changed, but his status had; he was now identified as the pastor of the Locust Street Methodist Episcopal Church and, the directory observed, of a "new church now building" at the corner of Third and Chestnut. This impressive edifice — Trinity Methodist — was completed in 1866. A booklet produced for the church's centennial celebration observed that "the work of building the new church and advancing the Cause in Evansville overtaxed the strength of Rev. Albion Fellows," leading to his premature death. Oral tradition in the family indicates that he became soaked and chilled while returning on horseback from a rural church and subsequently contracted a fatal case of pneumonia. Whatever the case — and the two stories are not mutually exclusive — Mary Fellows was left to carry on.
Following her husband's death, and the birth of his namesake daughter, Mary moved the family to McCutchanville, locating in a house on her father's farm. After a stay of two or three years, they returned to Evansville; the city directories of the late 1860s and early 1870s list a "Mrs. Mary E. Fellows, widow" who lived first on Gum Street and then on the northeast corner of Second and Chestnut. The enumerator responsible for Evansville's second ward in the 1870 census recorded Mary as the head of a household that included her three daughters as well as schoolteacher Anna Erskine, her younger sister. In spite of (or, possibly, because of) Reverend Fellows's death, the family had increased its wealth during the Civil War decade; Mary reported $5,000 of real property and $600 worth of personal property.
Annie later recalled that after a few years in the city her mother "decided to locate permanently in the country, and built a house within a stone's throw of the old homestead" in McCutchanville. Two of Mary's brothers, James and Levi, were neighbors on what became known as Erskine Lane. "Here ... on a ridge of hills," as Albion described it over forty years later, "the families dwelt in a little community of their own, like a highland clan upon its own peaks." Her reference to a highland clan was apt, since many of the original settlers, like her Erskine forebears, were of Scotch-Irish descent. In spite of its physical proximity to Evansville, "on the calendar it was a whole generation back from it." McCutchanville had no streets and no stores, and its post office was in a private home where mail was delivered weekly. "It was," Albion recalled, "simply a scattered settlement having two foci, the church and the school house. Its laws were the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the customs of the fathers."
Growing up in this essentially rural setting — "scarcely a hamlet, since it had not even a store" — profoundly influenced Albion's sensibilities and, at least in part, the pattern of her adult life. In her late forties she still described her youth in McCutchanville in rapturous terms. Moving from the city had been, she wrote, "like waking from a grey dream into a realm of colour and light." In part this had to do with her almost mystical appreciation of the natural world. She "wandered in a maze of delight," she remembered, and thought the area "a wonderland, with Heaven among its hills and fairyland in its hollows." Her youngest daughter recalled that, even in her mother's late adult years, McCutchanville remained "pure poetry." Albion herself, well after she had become known as an urban-oriented reformer, reflected that she had managed to retain a "vision of those wind-swept, sun-crowned hills, and the feeling of those great free spaces." It was this memory, she acknowledged, "that makes our cities choke me."
During her childhood, community activities revolved around the church and the school. The earliest settlers represented a variety of Protestant persuasions, especially Presbyterian. Eventually, however, most residents of the area "came within the folds of Methodism," perhaps because that denomination's circuit riders proselytized the pioneer community more frequently than the clergy of other faiths. The hamlet's first church, dedicated in 1848, was initially considered a "union" structure since a bequest that aided its construction stipulated that it "be free to all Christian denominations." The fact that it was a Methodist minister who dedicated the house of worship, however, suggests the de facto denominational leanings of the congregation from its earliest years.
This frame structure, standing in a grove of locusts and cedars, was still in use when the Fellows family returned to McCutchanville in the early 1870s. Given their Methodist heritage and the proximity of the building to their new house (it was just at the end of Erskine Lane), it is not surprising that this became the church of Albion's youth. Looking back as an adult, she described herself as a "quite devout" child who "lived in a religious atmosphere." The Fellows and Erskine families "went to church whenever its doors were open, to 'preaching,' class meeting, prayer meeting, Sunday school, revivals." Impressed by the revivals, she "supposed I had to repent, and was worried because I did not know anything to repent of." Relieved when a "sensible minister advised us children to simply follow Christ," she joined the church at age eleven. She reminisced fondly about her experiences there, referring in a poem titled "The Old Church" to "That sweet, bright calm, my childhood's Sabbath day." Yet she was able, in this same work, to present a realistic, child's-eye perspective of the church and her attendance there:
Its straight, uncushioned seats, how hard they seemed! What penance-doing form they always wore To little heads that could not reach the text, And little feet that could not reach the floor. .................... With half-shut eyes, across the pulpit bent, The preacher droned in soothing tones about Some theme, that like the narrow windows high, Took in the sky, but left terrestrials out.
"All of our elders were devout," she wrote, "and with the narrow views of the times." It was in this physical setting and intellectual milieu, where she was told "that every evil thing I saw or heard would leave a stain upon my soul," that she embraced a religion, as she later put it, of "personal righteousness rather than social service." She would, "whenever evil occasion required," adopt a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil attitude, "thinking hard all the time of a rose or an icicle." It is one measure of the tremendous changes that took place in her life, and in the world around her in the early twentieth century, that by 1914 she could describe these attitudes of her youth and young adulthood as "the ideal religion of that age and the relic of this."
The McCutchanville school, the other major institution in young Albion's life, stood not far beyond the church — an easy walk from the Fellows's house. The building in use when the family first located in the hamlet was a modest frame structure erected in 1852 and described by Annie in her memoirs as "a very primitive affair." Shortly thereafter work began on a new, two-story brick schoolhouse, which opened in 1874 or 1875. This building had two classrooms on the ground floor and an upstairs auditorium (the hair) that served for several decades as a meeting place for community activities.
Albion had little to say in later years regarding the caliber of instruction afforded by this simple country school. She recalled that during her first two or three years she was "so paralyzed by fear of my teachers ... that I think I learned nothing." Later, however, with gentler instructors, she overcame her fears and "learned easily." She remembered that her sense of wonder at the natural world followed her through the schoolhouse door. In her first years "arithmetic was as occult as Hindu numbers, and the parsing of the older grammar classes seemed to me some weird incantation, though the verses they parsed became a part of my very fibre." Annie, too, provided a brief glimpse at the curriculum; she remembered never being bored since she could listen to the "big scholars' recitations" whenever she tired of her own work: "Many an incident in history and many an extract from Webster's speeches or from Shakespeare's plays were learned simply by listening to the higher classes recite." In spite of the paucity of evidence, it seems fair to conclude — especially given the quantity, quality, and diversity of their adult writing — that the Fellows sisters' elementary education provided a firm foundation for their future accomplishments.
While the church and the school were vitally important influences, Albion's childhood experiences in McCutchanville were not confined to those institutions. When they moved to the country she and Annie had six cousins in the immediate vicinity, a number that grew in subsequent years. (Because her sister Lura was eight or nine years older, left for college shortly after the family's move to McCutchanville, and then married, she was not as dominant a figure in Albion's youth as might otherwise have been the case, although she wrote in later years of her childhood "reverence and admiration" for her eldest sibling.) The cousins shared "every kind of adventure," including riding a hay fork in the barn "so high that it would have been instant death had the rope slipped or our hold given way." The sisters also enjoyed taking whatever part they could in seasonal farm activities; sorghum-, cider-, and hay-making all had their special charms, and "from sheep-shearing time until wheat-threshing was over in the autumn, there was always something of interest to watch."
Mary Fellows was a dominating presence in the girls' lives. Albion recalled "no influence so practical" and "none so inspiring" as her mother, and one of Mary's grandchildren remembered her as being "very, very strict" and a person of enormous self-discipline. Widowed, of modest means, relying on relatives for various kinds of assistance, she "spent her life in a passion of self-sacrifice, ministering to all who were in trouble." "In very tender years," Albion wrote late in her life, "I remember needing and getting a great many punishments. But I came to a place where I realized it gave my mother distress, and yielded to her will, no matter what it entailed." She also reminisced that being in her mother's presence engendered "a quickened sense of responsibility" and a feeling that one must "amount to something."
Excerpted from Albion Fellows Bacon by Robert G. Barrows. Copyright © 2000 Robert G. Barrows. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Sheltered Life
Chapter 2: The Clutch of the Thorns
Chapter 3: Ambassador of the Poor
Chapter 4: The Homes of Indiana
Chapter 5: Child Welfare
Chapter 6: City Plans and National Housing Standards
Chapter 7: Prose, Poetry, and Pageants
Chapter 8: Municipal Housekeeper and Inadvertent Feminist