Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Nella Fontaine Binckley: "Odds and Ends from an Artist's Life," Chapter I, Part 3

Circled in Red = location of "The Cottage" (from an 1858 map of Washington City, Library of Congress)*
[Nella Fontaine Binckley, "Odds and Ends from an Artist's Life," Chapter [I], part 3. From a transcription annotated by Patricia D'Arcy Binckley of typewritten original, February 25, 2005. Original "written some time after 1941 by Nellie F. Binckley, 1860-1950 or 51." Notes in brackets are mine, unless followed by the initials "P.D.B." Occasionally, additional paragraph breaks inserted for easier reading. 

Many thanks to William Myers, Mary Davy, Sally Young and Sue Davis for their ongoing research collaboration; specifically to William for providing a scan of the original document, and in turn many thanks to Peter Binckley and Patricia D'Arcy "Trish" Binckley (1951-2007), at the source.]

My grandparents [Jane and Harvey Michel -- M.J.B.] lived in Washington City, and owned a charming house on the corner of 13th and N Streets northwest.  It was a two story cottage with gables and latticed casement windows, diamond patterned. The front porch was covered with a honeysuckle vine. On the first floor, facing east, was a conservatory between the front and back gables. In summer there [were] flowers around the house, and a large garden at the back, running along 13th Street nearly a block. Grandmother had the green thumb (I think both of her thumbs must have been green) and always a fine garden, wherever they were. This one had much fruit and many vegetables. An artist cousin from Chicago, while visiting them, made a pencil sketch of The Cottage and gave it to them. (I have it now). They had lived there since the late fifties, when Mother was a young girl, and Aunt Sue [Susan Michel Taliaferro -- M.J.B.] was a child.

A lifetime later, when Aunt Sue was over eighty [that is, after 1925], she began to write her recollections of early Washington, but never got beyond a few pages, I am sorry to say. I quote from one of them: "The Cottage was on the outskirts of what was then a primitive town -- how primitive it is hard, now, to believe. From P Street north there was nothing but a swamp, where my brother shot frogs and occasionally snipe. The swamp was known as The Slashes, for some reason."

"The wide streets were not paved, and their only lighting was a dim street lamp here and there. Street cars were unknown, though a few buses ran from the Capitol to Georgetown. There were no public schools and only a few private ones. We went to one on Georgetown, where an apartment house called The Colonial now stands."

"Cows roamed the streets, and pigs lived in the yard of a family of Irish neighbors. Now and then a row broke out among them and the yard would be filled with people and pigs. Spades would be wielded left and right, with the pigs getting some of the blows, resulting in a mixture of yells and squeals -- very frightening to me as a small girl if I happened to be passing the scene of battle."

Another page describes a visit Aunt Sue made to friends in Winchester, Virginia, during the hectic days of the Civil War. "At last we started back to Washington during one of the periods when the Confederates were in possession. A daughter of the family we were visiting in Winchester had married a Northern man, son of a neighbor of ours in Washington. He had managed to communicate with her, and had arranged to meet her at Harper's Ferry. She had a baby with nurse (colored, of course) and the nurse's husband. We all went by stage part of the way, and then in a carriage, with wagon for the trunks. When we reached Bolivar Heights, the whole hill was covered with tents of the Federal troops and we were inside their lines. My mother [Jane Johnston Michel -- M.J.B.] had a pass from her brother, General Joseph Johnston, through the Confederate lines, but beyond that, nothing to count on. Seeing the tents of the other army, the drivers of the carriage and the wagon refused to go any farther, tumbled the trunks out on top of the hill and were gone. What to do was a problem, until my mother solved it by saying she would stay with the trunks and that we must go down to Harper's Ferry and trust to meet our friend's husband. So we set off, leaving my fearless mother sitting on a trunk between two lines of pickets. And there she sat for several hours. We met the husband, and a man was induced to bring Mother and the trunks down to an awful hotel in Harper's Ferry, full of soldiers and, as we learned later, camp followers of the lowest class. Years after, I came thorough that part of Virginia in an automobile, to find the whole side of Bolivar Heights again covered with tents, the summer encampment of our Washington District Guard -- to all appearances the same, with a gap of years between." 

[Ellen/Nellie/Nella Fontaine Binckley (September 1, 1860-April 27, 1951). Family names and dates were whimsically tweaked by their owners during their lifetime, adding mystery and sometimes causing confusion. For Binckley's "Artist's Life," I'm opting for the full artist's signature name, Nella Fontaine Binckley. 

Harvey Mitchell/Michel (1799-1866).
Jane Johnston Mitchell/Michel (1811-1892).
Sue Henry Mitchell/Michel (September 15, 1845-March 15, 1940).
Sue's brother = William Manning "Willie" Mitchell/Michel (1839-1908).]

*Charles Desilver, City of Washington (Philadelphia, 1858). Library of Congress. Link here.

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