West Virginia Hills by Jeff Ellis

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Anna Jarvis Birthplace Museum, Webster

     Today is a very special day, as it has been designated as the first internationally celebrated holiday in the world--Mother's Day. Like everybody else on this day, John and I both recall our own mothers with special memories of tenderness and love. He and I both lost our mothers (his in 1990, and mine in 1997) to different forms of cancer, and so we understand that strong tug on the heart you get when you see other adults still sharing in that most special relationship. Even when your parents are gone, you sometimes feel so strongly that they're not, that somehow they are still with you, especially in those most familiar moments or occassions particular to you privately, or to your family. This was most likely how Anna Jarvis felt after her own mother passed away on the second Sunday in May 1905 (May 9th). It had been her mother's lifelong desire to have a holiday that honored mothers, and Anna vowed to make that a reality. Immediately she began to lobby groups to found the holiday, having a cause that everyone could agree on during an otherwise troublesome era of women's suffrage and the labor movement. And it was our own home state of  West Virginia that became the very first state to officially declare the establishment of Mother's Day in 1910 (which makes today the 100th anniversary of its celebration in WV). But before that, on May 10, 1908, the first Mother's Day service was held at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, WV; Anna sent 500 white carnations, her mother's favorite flower, to the church to be given to the mothers who attended (which is how the tradition of giving flowers on Mother's Day, to say thank you for all the love and care, originated).
     Yesterday John and I drove over to Webster, WV in Taylor County. At 2:00 the 12th annual Founder's Festival got underway, honoring 10 decades of mothers, starting in 1914 when the first Mother's Day was nationally celebrated, moving up through the beginning of the 21st century, highlighting a century of changes in the ways women have mothered in terms of the advances made in technology, products, and services, as well as the various changes in social and legal issues that moms have had to concern themselves with. Of course hearing them speak made me think of how different it was for my mom raising us three kids in the 1960s and early 70s versus how it was for me to raise my daughter in the 80s and  early 90s, to how much different it is for her as she raises her two young boys today. Observing all this, it appears to me that life for a mom has gotten so much more busy, complicated, and expensive!
     After the program we took a guided tour of the Jarvis house, where we learned why it was that Anna Jarvis felt so strongly about honoring the wishes of her mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, to establish a recognized day for mothers. Ann Marie and Granville Jarvis (a successful mercantile businessman) married in 1850, and eventually had 13 children, 8 of whom died before making it into adulthood. Motivated to try to understand what may have caused the deaths of her children, she called on her brother, James, who was a doctor and expert in public health, for help. He was able to explain to her that poor hygienic living was the cause of many of the diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and even measles that were rampant among the population. So Ann Marie, who was only 26 years old, got in her buggy and traveled to neighboring towns encouraging women to form Mothers Friendship Clubs through the churches where they could learn what she had learned. Antibiotics were unknown, so the only hope of desperate mothers were taking preventative sanitary measures like covering food, washing diapers, bathing regularly, and cleaning out the wells and privies; this, combined with good nursing eventually resulted in a drastic decrease in the number of deaths.  Another time Ann Marie called on the women's clubs to meet was to determine their part in the war that had by then broken out (the first land battle of the Civil War occurred in the neighboring town of Philippi). They agreed to nurse soldiers from both sides, and pledged to stay united during the war for friendship and goodwill.

     In 1861 General George B. MClellan, with Mrs. Jarvis' permission, began using her house as his first Civil War headquarters, taking over her front room and tying his telegraph into her local line. The house was strategically located on the highway (the Wheeling-Staunton Pike) that connected the two main cities of Virginia: Wheeling and Richmond. His soldiers, sometimes numbering into the hundreds and thousands, camped across the road. This lasted for four years (the front room of the Jarvis house has been preserved as a memorial to McClellan and the Civil War). After the war resentment was so strong on both sides that it often became dangerously life-threatening to be outside, so once again Ann Marie called on her Mothers Club for help. She asked each member to bring a soldier to a meeting in Pruntytown, where they would celebrate a Mother's Friendship Day. Dressed in gray and accompanied by a wife of a confederate soldier who dressed in blue, Mrs. Jarvis asked the band to play "Dixie," while the lady in blue asked them to play "The Star Spangled Banner." Cheers and laughter followed, and then Mrs. Jarvis delivered a speech in which she begged the soldiers to lay down their arms and get on with the business of life, and to forgive their enemies and lay their hard feelings aside. The band then played "Auld Lang Syne," which brought the crowd to tears. No further shots were ever fired.
     In 1864 Ann Marie gave birth to Anna. Mr. Jarvis was quite prosperous by this time, having invested in land, timber, and the railroads, and so eventually moved his family to Grafton. When Anna was old enough she was sent to school on Staunton, Virginia (the Augusta Female Seminary, which later became Mary Baldwin College) where she studied Latin, math, literature, music, and the arts. While there she met Woodrow Wilson, with whom she became a lifelong friend. Anna returned to Grafton to teach for seven years before moving to Philadelphia. When her father died in 1902, her mother and sister also moved to Philadelphia where her brother Claude had a very successful taxicab company. He gave her shares in his company, plus she had inherited a very sizeable amount from her father's estate. When her mother died in 1905 she began a writing campaign, sending letters to every governor in the nation and every head of state around the world. In 1907 Congress authorized, but President Theodore Roosevelt did not sign off on it, a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as Mothers Day. It wasn't until 1914 that President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation stating, "The American mother is the greatest source of our country's strength and inspiration." By 1908 forty-five states, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Canada, and Mexico joined in observing Mothers Day. On June 20, 1932 West Virginia Governor Conley invited Anna Jarvis to be the keynote speaker at the dedication of the $10 million capitol building in Charleston. Then began her battle to prevent the commercialization of Mother's Day, railing against florists, candy makers, and card makers who were making millions off of "her" holiday. She attended their conventions and castigated them for their profiteering, telling them that they owed it to mothers to put aside a portion of their profits to establish a fund for indigent mothers. She spent at least $100,000 of her inheritance for postage, stationery, clerical work, and educational leaflets to make people aware of the huge profits being made by these industries, all to no avail. By 1944, at the age of 88, she was penniless and broken-spirited. Found wandering the streets of Philadelphia with pneumonia, she was sent to a sanitarium where she spent the last four years of her life until she died on November 24, 1948. Ironically, and maybe because they felt guilty, the Florists Exchange, one of the groups she despised, paid the bill in full for her stay in the sanitarium.
     Anna Jarvis now holds a place of honor as the first woman to be memorialized in the WV Capitol, as the Anna Jarvis Memorial Bust was dedicated on November 9, 2001 at the WV State Capitol Rotunda.  Thunder on the Tygart Foundation sponsored the sculpture, which is now in the state's permanent collection. 
The Anna Jarvis Birthplace Museum opened in 1996, two years after the present owners, Tom and Olive Dadisman, were handed over the keys in 1994 by the Willis Preston Felton heirs. The house was declared a historical site in 1974, and in 1984 the Daughters of the American Revolution received a sizeable grant to restore the house, but over $90,000 of it went towards studies, while the remaining monies went towards repairing the foundation and painting it. When the Dadisman's got the house it was falling down, and was in such a mess that they spent the first year just cleaning up the yard. What is now the gift shop parking lot and pavilion was at that time mostly swamp, which they had to clear and fill. Olive said that all the work s done was with the help of volunteers who came from all over West Virginia. While they have received several grants over the years to help fix the furnace, repair the porch, replace the windows, and exterminate termites, they have not received any grant money for the past seven years. It wasn't until 1998 when Mrs. Hova Underwood, who was being honored as the first Mother of the Year, learned that there were no public restrooms on the premises when she inquired as to their whereabouts, promised that she would secure the funds necessary to change that situation! In 2001 the area across from the Jarvis house was flooded, and everything was lost and had to be rebuilt, which is when someone donated the bridge that now crosses the creek. Also, everything in the house is 95% authentic, either to the Anna Jarvis family or to the time period, much of which has been privately donated to the museum.Thunder on the Tygart, Inc. is a non-profit foundation begun in 1994 to create jobs in WV, preserve historic sites, and educate today's youth about their heritage and the wealth of history that occurred in the great state of West Virginia. They will gladly accept tax-deductable donations, while they strive to keep the cost to visit the Jarvis Birthplace Museum still very low at $5 a person (children under 6 get in free). Besides the Mother's Day Founders Festival Weekend, they sponsor an Old Fashion Christmas Tour during the month of December. Having just visited there myself, and having met the wonderful people who own and work the museum, I'd strongly recommend a drive to Webster, WV. It's a treat for Moms and Civil War buffs alike!

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