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A Gift From History - Widow's Home

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on March 18, 1984
A Gift From History – Widow’s Home
By Katherine Ullmer
            The little brick building on “Charity Hill” is gone, along with the destitute children that this mid-19th-century building housed.  But the legacy of the Dayton Female Association, which saw to it that Dayton’s orphans, and later, its Civil War widows, were provided for, lives on.
            The 37 widows and other women who never married who lived at the Widow’s Home, 50 S. Findlay St., are part of that legacy, as is the rambling one-story brick home they now live in, thanks to the continuing goodwill of the Dayton community.
            “We are very grateful to the people in the community for all their gifts,” says Frances Stillwagon, a board member for the Widow’s Home for the past 26 years.  She knows the home’s history inside and out.
            But even she knows little about Nancy Trotter Bates, in whose memory the current Widow’s Home is dedicated.  What is known is that Mrs. Bates came to Dayton in 1858 as the widow of Richard Bates of Cincinnati, most probably to be near her daughter, who had married into the banking family of Jonathan Harshman Winters.
            Mrs. Bates became head of the Dayton Female Association, incorporated in 1844 to provide for the comfort, maintenance and proper education of destitute children.  From contributions received from Dayton’s citizens, a lot on Magnolia Street (where Miami Valley Hospital now stands) was purchased and a little brick building erected.  Here orphans were cared for with the help of church and public donations until a legislative act in 1866 turned the care of orphans over to the county.  A new orphan’s home was built on Summitt Street.
            The little brick house stood empty for a while, but the Civil War had left another group of destitute women—the widows of Civil War soldiers.  Mrs. Bates turned her attention to this new need.  To legally acquire the property for this new endeavor, the women reorganized as the Women’s Christian Association (forerunner of today’s YWCA) in reorganization, and so her daughter, Susan Winters, was asked to become president of the group.
            The new Widow’s Home opened its doors in 1875 with the acknowledgement that “any widow or destitute woman of good moral character over sixty years of age who has resided in Dayton five years can become a permanent inmate by the payment of one hundred dollars to the endowment fund, furnishing her own room and clothing and paying fifty dollars for funeral expenses.”  Thirty-four women were sheltered in 1876, with some staying for several months and others housed overnight with payment of board.
            By 1883 when a new three-story brick Victorian home was built on a 1.89-acre site donated in 1882 by Dayton banker William P. Huffman, the admission fee had risen to $200.
            “I have to say, these women were pretty smart,” Mrs. Stillwagon says. “Even when the admission fee was nominal, they divided it.”  When the fee rose to $200, $50 went to the general fund, $100 to endowment and $50 for burial.  If a woman decided to leave the home once admitted, she got her money back minus $2 for each week of residency.
            The $2 per week cost of living is only “1 percent of what it costs now,” says the home’s administrator, Robert Reed.
            Now as then, the non-profit home depends on donations from the community for its survival.  In the olden days, the home had an annual fall Harvest Home held every October.
“There were many groups within the city who would bring food for the meal on that day and they brought extra food and left it.  They brought linens.  Everything was donated,” Mrs. Stillwagon says.
            When the home needed food or supplies at other times during the year, ads were run in the newspaper asking for donations.  “Would it be asking too much for each housekeeper to spare one glass of jelly or one jar of fruit from her store?” one ad asked.
            Minutes of the Jan. 7, 1890, board meeting show that on the previous Dec. 30, a new calf was born.  “They had a hard time knowing what to do with it,” Mrs. Stillwagon says.  “They wanted to keep it until it was of the age to butcher and use the meat, but then they decided they needed lard and coal more, so they sold it.”
            In 1924 the Harvest Home was discontinued in favor of asking the public for donations of money.  Then, after World War II, the home became one of the organizations supported by the Community Chest, later the United Way.  In the 1970s those ties were broken when “the United Way decided to no longer support care facilities,” Mrs. Stillwagon says.  Ties with the Women’s Christian Association had been severed in 1961.  “They were caring for younger people and we were caring for the elderly,” Mrs. Stillwagon explains.
            To maintain its public, non-profit status, the home has continued to appeal for public donations.  Gifts from board members, past and present, as well as from area citizens have made the home what it is today.
            The $20,000 brick Victorian home built at the Findlay Street site was razed in 1972 to make way for the last of four modern wings built since 1950.  Its erection came as the result of a $750,000 bequest from a former board member, Thelma Dreese, and includes the administration offices and two apartments, a TV room, parlor, large multi-purpose room board room, small beauty parlor, and meditation room.  It also includes a large porch, “the one thing the ladies said they wanted most,” Mrs. Stillwagon says.
            The old home “was really lovely,” she recalls.  “It had the high, real high ceilings, a circular wide stairway—it went up two ways—but how these elderly women walked those stairs I do not know.”  There was no elevator and the women lived on the second and third stories.
            The “New” Home still retains some memories of these early days, including the wrought-iron fence surrounding the property, large old portraits of Nancy Trotter Bates and the Huffmans, and antique furniture and dishes donated by one-time residents or benefactors.
            The large old furniture in the home adds a quaint hominess.  In the entrance a hall rack, handcarved by Mrs. Sidney H. Herriman, a graduate of the Cleveland School of Art, in 1891, often holds a variety of green plants.  A Cherry corner cabinet that once graced the home of a former resident has found its place in the parlor, filled with antique dishes passed on by residents.  In another corner sits a solid cherry butler’s desk.  The parlor, with its fireplace and comfortable chairs, is where the residents often bring their visitors to chat as in days of old.
            Art work in oils, pastels, cross-stitch and other medium decorates the hallways and walls throughout the home.  It, like so much else in the home, is the result of donations and gifts from residents and benefactors.
            Current residents like Clara Jonas, 85, who has been at the home four years, have the choice of using the home’s furnishing or bringing some of their home to decorate her room with her own furniture and handiwork.  She was sewing on a local church’s quilt project in the well-lit solarium around the corner form her room on a recent morning.  Still in her blue cotton bath robe, she laid her needle aside to chat for a moment.
            “I lived in Dayton practically all my life,” he says, “but when you can’t take care of yourself, you look for someone who can help you.”  She had moved from her home into a mall apartment before coming to the Widow’s home and “I got rid of a lot of things then,” she says.  That made her next move easier.
            A bed, several dressers, TV and a comfortable chair now fill the small room she calls home.  She made a crocheted bedspread with pillows with matching crocheted covers for her bed and a coverlet for her chair.  An artfully designed shell-collection picture with shells gathered in Florida vacation days and a small collection of family pictures decorate the walls, along with a needlework nature scene made by a friend.
            “I do quilting, crocheting, reading and playing cards,” Mrs. Jonas says. She also helps organize activities like Bingo and parties for the home.  “I’m sort of a flunky,” she says, a spry twinkle in her eye.
            Pulling aside the curtain of her clothes closet, she displays a closet full of colorful print dresses.  “I make all my own clothes.” She says. “There are only about six things there I didn’t make.”
            Down the hall a ways, Nora Bowman, 84, is rocking in a chair, awaiting the noontime lunch bell.  A resident since just last October, shortly after she was admitted she fell and broke her hip.  She has been using a cane to get around.
            Residents are only admitted to the facility if they are ambulatory, Mrs. Stillwagon explains.  Once admitted, however, if a resident becomes ill, she receives care in the infirmary wing which has single rooms and a five-bed ward.
            Nurse Mary Zicht has been on the home’s staff for the past 18 years.  She has nurses aides for additional help and he home contracts with a local doctor on an on-call basis.
            Including beds for the infirmary, the home accommodates 44 women.  The 37 women now living there have an average age of 87, with the oldest approaching 100 and the youngest 76.
            The rules for admission haven’t changed a lot since the early days.  A woman must be 65 or older, ambulatory and in reasonable good health.  She must have a physical examination by the home’s physician, have been a resident of Montgomery, Greene or Preble counties for the past five years and pay a $500 admission fee.  All assets must be signed over to the home upon acceptance for permanent admission.  The women receive about $25 a month spending money, allotted from their Social Security checks.
            The home provides housekeeping and laundry services and have three family-style meals a day served in a large dining area.  The dining area, like the other rooms in the home, shows quality workmanship, with a wood parquet floor and cherry paneling.  It also has a drop ceiling to cover up pipes in the sprinkler system.  “We didn’t want the pipes to show,” Mrs. Stillwagon says, explaining, “I wouldn’t want pipes showing in my home and we want this to be as much like home for the ladies who come here as possible.”
            “The idea is this is their home for the rest of their life,” Reed says.  Because of the smallness of the home, we all seem like family.”  A family he hopes will grow.  “We still have room for more,” he says.
            The Widow’s Home plans to hold an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. May 6.