MARY ANN KILWORTH
WHEN I was a little girl, Saturday evening brought one delightful experience that went far to mitigate the disagreeable ceremonies connected with that particular evening of the week. A knock at the dining-room door heralded the appearance of Mrs. Kilworth with the basket of clean clothes. If she had no other customers to visit she might be persuaded to sit awhile, and if bed-time was far enough off we might be permitted to stay and listen to her. So she was hailed with rapture and called up to the side of the grate fire by a chorus in unison from the children, who said,
"Oh, Mrs. Kilworth, do tell us about old times in Dayton, when you were a little girl.”
For this was the charm which, to childish hearts, threw such a glow over a plain old woman who brought home the wash. In her, Ulysses, Sindbad, Peter Parley, Cervantes and all the classic story-tellers had their match. To be sure she knew nothing of romance or chivalry; had never heard of knights or lords, and would scorn a fairy tale; none the less her stories thrilled with interest. She knew Dayton history and biography by heart for half a century. Nothing had ever happened in this vicinity upon which Mrs. Kilworth had not "inside" information. You might ask questions and welcome, but if you struck something that Mrs. Kilworth did not know, you felt your humiliating situation keenly. When she "sang of arms and the man" it was her father she meant, and his rifles, with which he peppered the Indians across the Miami River. Her tales were of the early days, when two streets running north and south, and three east and west, made Dayton; when the intersection of Main and Third streets was a pond, and when Newcom's tavern was new and splendid. You will not find Mrs. Kilworth's name in "Early Dayton," for she did not train with the "smart set" in the early "twenties," but she knew them all, (ah! didn't she?) and was an awful bubble-pricker if any of the second generation tried to forget the plain days of their fathers. When she began reminiscently, "Laws, now, them P----s, they needn't put on so much style! My, T remember when old man P____ useter." Mother would scowl at her over our heads, and we knew something good was lost forever.
Yes, although Mrs. Kilworth^s name does not grace the pages of any local history, she was no less a pioneer, and an honored one. Scores of our citizens will recall a tall ungainly form, clad in a skimp, straight calico skirt reaching to the tops of calf-skin shoes, and a red plaid shawl folded with a point down the back, an added index of her angularity. A basket was an invariable accompaniment, and a slat bonnet framed a face which I remember as neither old nor young, ugly or pretty, but only that we were always glad to see it; and that is in the long run, as good as being handsome. This figure tramped with the stride of a colossus, and could be recognized the length of Ludlow Street, when once you knew her.
She washed for the best people, and called them all by the first names with impartial good will__"Boney" Darst, "Steve" Smith and "Ike" Kiersted. Her native humor, her shrewd good sense, her loquacity and kind heart made her welcome everywhere, and my mother's fire was not the only one by the side of which she was invited to rest while her basket was emptied. Seated in a low rocking-chair, her long knees bent up in front of her, suggesting a grasshopper, she would sway back and forth and tell us that Mrs. Bunstine had a new flowered brussels carpet, or that Dr. Clements had been quite poorly with bronchitis, or how many shirts she had done up that week for Peter P. Lowe. She valued my mother's judgment most highly, and consulted her upon one particular matter frequently. All her love and care and labor were expended upon an adopted daughter (being herself childless), and the future of this child was her chief aim of existence. The problem was a suitable career, and the decision lay betwteen that of an artist and milliner. I am sorry to say I cannot remember how it turned out, or if my mother's advice was either given or followed.
One story I used to like to hear Mrs. Kilworth tell was about a lark some of the boys and girls got into in the gallery of the First Presbyterian Church, the oldest one, which was built in 1817. In this building three sides of the church were occupied with a gallery containing high-backed pews where mischievous young folks could make a good deal of trouble without being seen. The mischief, whatever it was, resulted in an invasion of the gallery pews by one of the elders, (what a pity we do not know whether his name was Edgar or King or Osborn!) and our heroine, as the story-books would call her, escaped by dropping from the second story window back of the choir on the soft grass below, and running down Second Street out into the country. That is, she ran past the intersection of Wilkinson street, into which remote region no elder would think of pursuing her.
Mrs. Kilworth remembered the trading with the Indians, the shooting of game, and curing of skins. We heard how, before the cosmopolitan days of their corn crib prison, they used to keep the prisoners down the Newcom well. She lived, indeed, in that very neighborhood, the heart of the original settlement; her gray frame house stood on the lot now occupied by James P. Wolfs residence on Monument Avenue, between Main and Ludlow. The skirmishes with the Indians across the river had been within her easy remembrance, and she could tell us just when the old Fifth Street graveyard began to be used; our play-ground then, an almost obliterated memory now. These stories we heard over and over again, sometimes at our home, sometimes at hers, when we were sent there on an errand. What a journey it used to be in those times (my "early Dayton" days)--the length of Ludlow Street, from Fourth to Water (Monument). In the simplicity of municipal arrangements they allowed cows to roam at will, and
these animals had a/ way of lurking just inside of alleyways and "mooing" unexpectedly as one passed the corner. This made one's blood congeal, and mine never flowed quite liquid again until we had gotten safely by the alley back of the Robert Steele place. There were few people in the streets then, and grass grew out in the road to where the wheel marks began.
We always found Mrs. Kilworth on the back porch thumping an ironing board. A perfect housekeeper, her back premises were a marvel of neatness. Such white boards! such beds of flowers! Such tangles of morning-glory and honey-suckle! If she were in good spirits we conversed amicably, asked a good many questions, and got a drink of water from the old well, a seeded cookie and a bunch of mignonette.
Sometimes she stopped to rest and smoke, and flapped back and forth in a wooden rocking-chair on a squeaky board floor, while she talked. She had an awful unspeakable thumb–the result of a felon, and our eyes were glued to that malformation with insatiable curiosity as it helped carry the pipe to her mouth. The older people who knew Mrs. Kilworth have forgotten about that thumb--not so the children.
On special occasions we were invited into the front parlor to look at an oil portrait of Mrs. Kilworth in a black silk dress with a real lace collar. I never could quite grasp the fact that it was really Mrs. Kilworth in the gold frame; the contrast between art and nature was too forcible. I know now that it was a good portrait, because Soule was the artist; and it represented weeks and weeks of washing at so much a dozen.
Sometimes she was out of sorts, and we got no stories or cookies. We gained the impression that the trouble was something vaguely connected with "Kilworth." This was strange, too, because he was a nice man with a fat face, who never said much. I will not conceal the fact that Mrs. Kilworth was easily aroused, and when wroth, would use plain language; temperance in voice and tongue was not a virtue of the early settler in her rank in life, and she had much to try her temper. But to offset any such account that may stand against her name, the recording angel will write that when a customer of thirty years' standing became old and poor and helpless, Mrs. Kilworth did his washing cheerfully during the remaining two years of his life for nothing.
Mr. Kilworth had no stories to tell us (where could he have been when the Indians attacked Dayton?); but what was almost as good, he had a rope-walk on the old flat bank close by Main Street bridge, across the river. Once we wandered over and watched the men walking back and forth in the long, low, open shed, twisting the strands of rope and singing. We played in the water too, finding clam-shells in the sand and dandelions on the bank. How strange to learn that when Mrs. Kilworth was a little girl and played in the river, there were no bridges at all across the Miami, so those who were ambitious to travel had to be ferried over at First Street.
What would the shade of Mrs. Kilworth say to the change in her old neighborhood? Then, the old wooden bridge, washed away in the flood of '66; the Newcom Tavern, a flourishing grocery quite up to date, and some very plain brick and frame dwellings. Now, the concrete bridge, the Soldiers' Monument, the tall apartment houses and our splendid Steele High School!. Across the river then, the rope-walk, stately sycamores trimming the bank both east and west; beyond them, woods and fields. Now, populous Riverdale and the hum of the electric cars! To some hearts, yet young, there will always remain a memory around the corner of Main and Monument, which time cannot fade; it recalls a sturdy, honest, and faithful nature, brave and entirely unappreciated; which worked with might and main and muscle through a long, hard life that others might profit; who gave an orphan child a mother's care, and whose last wish was for the semblance of luxury, which had always been denied her. She begged to be buried in the black silk and "real" lace collar, and my mother saw that it was done.
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