Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Memoirs of Elizabeth Dickson Young

Elizabeth Jane Dickson

Elizabeth Jane Dickson was the youngest surviving child of William Dickson and Mary Ann Browning.

She left behind two short memoirs, at the urging of her son, William Dickson Young.  One focuses on her life prior to marriage, and one on her married life.  These provide a lot of insight into Elizabeth's family life and her relationship with her parents and siblings.  They also show what life was like for a young person growing to adulthood in the late 1800s in Buffalo, New York.  Below, I will quote liberally from Elizabeth's memoirs, specifically focusing on the paragraphs that involve her family.

I was born Oct. 6th 1847 in Buffalo.
The first thing I can remember is playing with the twin babies, a boy and a girl [Louis and Louise Dickson], who were born four years after me.  As I remember, they were always, when awake, in the large upstairs bed-room in the Barker Street house and on the floor on a comfortable [missing word here].  The little girl was dark, with black hair and I doubt that she was ever well because she cried so much, but the boy was fair-headed and the dearest little fellow, always laughing and happy.  They slept at night in a trundle bed, which in the day time was pushed under the large bed.  They lived to be eight months old; the girl died first of "summer complaint." and I think the boy grieved for her, for he died three days later.  They were buried in the same coffin.  I remember being lifted up to look at them.  I was four years and eight months old then.  I remember nothing of the funeral except that I rode in one of the carriages, sitting on the seat with Aunt Martha, with our backs to the horses, and after we had gone a short distance we halted so that the other carriages could be filled and join us.  I can see the house and people now, as they came out.  Then the carriage started and that is all I remember.  I know they were buried in the old High Street burying ground, and later taken to Forest Lawn.  It is strange that so little made a place in my mind, to stay there all these years.

I did some research to see what I could learn about "summer complaint." It seems that this was once a common term for acute cases of diarrhea, mainly in babies and young children.  In a pre-refrigerator era, milk spoiled in the summer heat, and foods were more easily contaminated with bacteria.  If Elizabeth is correct in her recollections, her twin siblings died of something so easily prevented in the modern age.  What a great tragedy it must have been for the Dickson family to lose two children within days of each other.

Elizabeth recalled many things that happened at the Barker Street house, where she was raised, and in the Dickson family's circle of friends.

Once my father brought home some yellow brick on his boat from Milwaukee and laid them on a side walk in the Barker Street yard.  The ants used to make their homes at the corners of the brick and I used to watch them by the hour.
At one time we had a girl working for us, whose name was Biddy Coil, and who was fresh from Ireland.  After she had been there for a time the table knives were found all bent over at their ends.  Mother asked her how it happened and she answered, "Indeed ma'am, the boys did it fixing their watches out on the bricks."
At one time when interest in table spirit-rappings had started in Buffalo, and my sister Esther had been to several at Levi Allen's (who lived then where Mrs. Dexter Rumsey does now, southwest corner of Summer and Delaware) I remember that I used to like to run my fingers down the keys of the piano when no one knew that I was at home.  Esther and Aunt Martha would come down in a hurry from upstairs, feeling sure it was spirits, and would talk it over (I listening from under the large sofa).  "It could not be anything but spirits for Lizzie is not here and no one else would do it."
Spirit-rapping is defined by The Spirit Archive as, "Percussive sounds of varying intensity without visible, known or normal agency, a common phenomenon of nineteenth-century Spiritualism. Typtology was the name given to the "science" of communicating with spirits by means of raps."

Elizabeth also recalled General Riley, a good friend of her father, William Dickson.
I remember an incident which was a good joke on the Riley family.  Gen Riley (he was the first Governor of California and in the Mexican war) and my father were very fond of going to auctions and usually the Riley attic and ours were full of things which no one wanted to use.  One day Mrs. Riley said, "Girls, your father is away today and I am going to send all those things in the attic to the auction rooms."  They filled two dray loads.  When Gen. Riley came home at night nothing was said.  The next afternoon a large furniture wagon stopped in front of the Rileys and it contained all the things they had sent back the day before.  The General had visited the auction rooms and bought back everything, not knowing that he had ever owned them before.
Elizabeth remembered a special gift bought for her by her father when she was about eight years old.
It was at this time that my father bought me the first wax doll that came to Buffalo.  It was in a show case at Barnum's.  It would open and shut its eyes and cry.  My father was easily coaxed to buy it for me.  It cost five dollars.  "What an extravagance" my aunts all said. 

S.O. Barnum & Son Company was a large shopping emporium or department store that was a fixture in Buffalo for nearly 100 years.  More details about this store can be found in the book The Glory Days of Buffalo Shopping by Michael F. Rizzo.

Elizabeth's memories of her home life allow us to picture the Dickson family in their home at Barker Street.  She describes a warm and happy home with extended family living together.

I remember that in the winter evenings we used to sit in the back parlor with a nice soft coal fire burning.  Father in his easy chair and I most of the time in his lap, or he would lie on the sofa, with me snuggled in behind him.  Mother would read aloud and Esther, sister Sarah and Aunt Martha would either crochet or sew patchwork quilts.  At nine P.M. I had to go to bed.  I know I always teased to stay up longer and sometimes I was allowed to, but at ten, unless there was company, all started up for bed, and in a short time all lights would be out.
My grandmother on my mother's side [Sarah Venn Browning] always lived with us. That made a large family, father, mother, Esther, sister Sarah, George, Johnny, Robert and Aunt Martha, grandmother Browning and myself, ten in all.  Mother always looked after everything about the house and grounds.  Father never knew what was going to be planted in the garden nor what changes were going to be made in the house.  I never remember his ever saying no to mother or ever speaking an unkind word to her. Everything she did suited him.  He had a big heart, a man ready to help in trouble, but let anyone impose on him and he would develop the biggest thunder storm one would wish to encounter.

In my next post, I'll continue to quote from Elizabeth Dickson Young's memoirs, which describe in further detail how the Dickson family lived and the conditions at their house in Buffalo.

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