Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Formidable Woman

Sophia Davis Lewis
with grand daughter Mildred Ross
circa 1913
She was born 13 August, 1856, daughter of Almeron and Mary [Boyington] Davis. She was the 4th of their five children and is listed as Julia S. Davis in the 1860 census. She gave the name "Julia" to her own daughter but was known throughout life as Sophia. I have only the one photo of her, taken c. 1913 when she was about 57 years old.
Sophia's life had not been easy, although by the standards of the times, perhaps not unusual. Two of her older siblings died, probably of TB, as their father's Civil War record notes that he had an advanced case of the disease when he enlisted in 1862. Georgianna Davis died in 1874 age 23 and her brother Andrew Davis in 1882 at age 27.
An item in the Ticonderoga Sentinel suggests that in her mid-twenties Sophia was teaching in the tiny frame school house that once stood near the family farm. Sophia demanded of the school board whether the school house, which had burned, was to be rebuilt. There is nothing to indicate that it was, and I think that Sophia spent the next several years at home tending to her aging and ill parents. Her mother, Mary, died in January of 1885 and her father, Almeron, in August of the same year, apparently leaving Sophia in possession of the farm, her two surviving brothers both being established on farmsteads of their own. I can only imagine the bleakness of her situation, as it seems likely that both parents were slowly wasting away from TB. Her father, captured as the aftermath of a battle and taken to Libbey Prison, like so many Civil War volunteers had applied for and been denied a veteran's pension. He and his wife [my g-g-grandparents, were about 61 when they died; not old by today's reckoning.]
Less than 3 months after her father's passing Sophia married William Lewis, a foreman at the Graphite Mines. He was age 38, she was 29, very nearly an "old maid." My mother thought that they had been acquainted for a number of years. My g-grandfather Lewis's history is an elusive one. We think he is the man of that name listed in the 1880 census among the miners who stayed at the local boarding house.
Sophia and William raised three children on the farm in Graphite while William continued as mine foreman until the dreaded "black lung" claimed his health. When William died in 1913, Sophia lived alone for the next 7 years. She rented the mountain farm, bought a property on a back road nearer the hamlet of Hague. In 1920 she married a neighbor, Ed Pratt, who had also lost his spouse. My mother stated that her three children, married themselves, opposed the marriage--tradition doesn't supply their reasons. It may not have been a happy union as by the 1930 census Sophia lived with her younger son, listed as "widow" while her second husband made his home several towns away with his married daughter.
In several editions of the Ticonderoga Sentinel in 1925 the following notice appeared.
"Everyone is forbidden by the law to cut down any wood or timber or remove any from the Sophia Lewis farms at Hague, NY.
S. L. Pratt"
When Sophia issued an order she evidently meant business. My cousin Barb did some housecleaning years ago for an elderly couple and the man of the house told her of a childhood encounter. He and a friend waited until night to approach Sophia's house intent on some small Halloween prank. The house was dark and they supposed she might be asleep or away. As they stalked toward the porch, the door was flung open and Sophia stepped outside with a shot gun leveled in their direction. What she may have threatened or intended is not recorded, but for the rest of his boyhood the man made a wide detour around her property.
Another tale seems to be the stuff of folklore, but does indicate that Sophia was not a person to be safely riled. [I can imagine this "story" growing with re-telling, as heads wagged and each repetition was prefaced with the time-honored phrase.."they say..."] It seems an itinerant peddlar failed to make his usual rounds one season and someone "thought" they recalled last seeing his equipage trundling up the dead-end dirt road where Sophia lived during her widowhood. The rumor grew, that perhaps she had used the shotgun to dispatch the peddlar, burned his wagon and goods and then stuffed his body down her well! That sounds like quite a feat for a woman by then in her sixties! It also leaves the question of what to do with the horse and whether, other matters aside, she would have contaminated her water source with a dead body! The fact that such speculation was voiced does suggest that her temper was short and she was on the defensive!
My mother's memory of her paternal grandmother, whom she called "Grandma Pratt," was of a sturdily handsome elderly woman who was very deaf. When engaging her son in conversation, Sophia got close by and shouted. "My father," said Mother, "didn't seem to mind that."
Grampa Mac entertained me with two stories of his mother. While the happenings show a firm discipline, he relayed them with chuckling as though he admired her spunk.
One fall after the butchering, Sophia made a quantity of mincemeat, packed it into large enamel pans and set them, covered with several layers of cheesecloth, on a high shelf in the woodshed ell where they would stay cold until time to make the Thanksgiving and Christmas pies. Grampa Mac snitched a big spoon from the kitchen and tucked it behind the mincemeat trays. Whenever his chores took him to the woodshed, he scooped a lovely dollop of mincemeat for a treat. Weeks later when the pans were brought into the kitchen and were discovered to have goudges of mincemeat missing, Sophia's first thought was that mice had gotten at it. She soon began looking for a human culprit--and found him! I gather that the next few moments were not pleasant ones for my grandfather.
When Grampa Mac was in his teens, he "pedaled" fresh eggs, berries and garden produce to the nearby summer hotels. Sophia's fresh butter was highly prized and the hotels took all she could spare. The horse was harnessed and backed to the wagon shaft, the garden stuff harvested and washed soon after daylight; berries picked the day before had been layered in containers and lastly the fresh butter pats brought from the cool cellar and carefully placed in a cheesecloth covered crock. One morning as he swung the crock into the wagon bed, the cover came loose and a butter ball bounced to the ground. Mac quickly picked it up, looked it over and decided that it wasn't harmed. He brushed off bits of grass and gravel, prepared to restore the butter ball to its mates. His mother, who had viewed this scene from the kitchen window, burst from the back door in a fury. Her reputation, she told him, was not going to be ruined by the presentation of butter which had been on the ground!
Her three children grew to be responsible, hard-working adults. Thrifty, good-natured, dependable--but not known for light-hearted ways or any silliness. The Davis clan didn't suffer fools gladly.


  1. Such an interesting story. Women of those days were made like that. They took no nonsense. I do admire them. But just imagine how such a woman like that would be accepted today! I think I have a strong streak of that in me, but most people I know would never guess it. But my students knew!!

  2. What wonderful stories ...had to smile at the body down the well.
    What an amazing woman ...not sure I would want to upset her !!! Maybe she was like she was after the hard start ...loosing siblings and nursing parents.

    There is something about FH ...whether its ones own or others ... that is just fascinating.

  3. She looks quite formidable, I agree! And I can add, "Ah, THAT William Lewis" too! How wonderful that you have such a store of memories.

    Of dad's mum, who died so young from cancer, I have no memories passed on at all - they were just too painful for my dad to mention. Absolutely nothing. Of his father, all I know is that he loved Mulligatawny soup, and it used to make beads of sweat stand out on his forehead - I reckon they must have made it a good bit hotter in those days then.

  4. What an amazing life story. So many strong women must have been left to work their family farms because war had taken away the menfolk, or because life just turned out that way. Shades of the film "On Cold Mountain" and of Thomas Hardy`s farmer heroine Bashsheba Everdene in "Far From The Madding Crowd".

    There are formidable and interesting women running their own farms here in the New Forest. Strong and sometimes eccentric, they hold a wealth of knowledge about the commoning way of life. I am full of admiration for the way that they protect their heritage against all comers.