An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew(3)

One of the few members of the middle class to do so, William advertised openly in the Liberty Press, the antislavery movement’s newspaper, which, since the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, had garnered a lot of support among the North American bourgeoisie. This type of activity was not completely free of danger: there were fines of $1,000 and prison sentences for anyone who helped the escapees, and slave owners would come to Jamestown to locate and demand return of their runaway slaves, if necessary. But the former cobbler’s apprentice was by now an established, widely esteemed citizen, which meant he could allow himself the luxury of having principles.

William’s brother George’s star was rising to even greater heights. He had quickly moved beyond provincial government and, as director of the Bank of Silver Creek, was now one of the most influential movers and shakers of Chautauqua County. Members of the business community were lobbying hard to have their region included in the new railway network, which in those years was spreading across the map of North America like the web of a drunken spider.

They succeeded. On August 25, 1860, the people of Jamestown witnessed a spectacle they’d remember for the rest of their lives. In the words of a wildly enthusiastic reporter for the Jamestown Journal: “The first iron horse that ever deigned to call in on our town drove majestically across the bridge on Main Street.”

In fact, only a small train crawled into the still-very-provisional station in Jamestown, but it was still a great wonder. There was now a direct connection to cities like New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh via the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. Within a single lifetime, a primitive collection of cabins that was once only reachable by horse or canoe had grown into a city of the world.

The railway line gave wings to the woodworking industry, and Jamestown furniture soon became a household name across the entire United States. The textile industry flourished, too. As if the gods hadn’t looked down kindly enough upon the inhabitants, they provided another lucrative and entirely free export product in the form of large ice blocks, which could be hacked out of the frozen lake in the winter and transported by train to gigantic ice houses in the big cities. In this way, the lake played an indirect role in the revolution the introduction of cooled produce created in kitchens, as well as the great success America had on the global food market.

The Civil War broke out in April 1861, and it seemed that this development might hamper Jamestown’s success. Four years later, on April 9, 1865, the North was victorious. Slavery was abolished, and the Southern states lost a great deal of their economic and political clout. The ink on the capitulation agreement was barely dry before the economy in the North was booming as never before. The banking sector that had financed military efforts had done excellent business during the war, and the ever-entrepreneurial George Tew, together with his five adult sons, had set up his own bank. The Second National Bank of Jamestown made the onetime blacksmith’s helper one of Jamestown’s richest men in his old age. He became even more influential when all of his sons managed to marry girls from the region’s most prominent families, like the Prendergasts.

Just as successful in work and marriage was Harvey, William Tew’s oldest son. After working for his father in the family business for seventeen years, in 1870 Harvey established a rubber factory with his brother-in-law Benjamin F. Goodrich. The story goes that the pair came up with the idea after large fires swept through Jamestown, which still consisted mainly of wooden buildings, sometimes wiping out entire neighborhoods. In winter, the fire brigade was repeatedly rendered powerless when the water froze in its leather hoses. The discovery that water stayed liquid in rubber hoses made the fortunes of Harvey and his brother-in-law and formed the basis of a company that would grow into one of the world’s largest tire producers.

But there was one Tew who hadn’t effortlessly followed in the first generation’s successful footsteps, and that was the man who would become Allene’s father: Charles, William’s youngest son. He was born in 1849, the last male descendant in the second generation, and it was as though the available supply of energy and ambition had simply run out. While his brother and cousins had long been working in their fathers’ businesses by the time they reached the age of fifteen, Charles was still at school. And while every one of his cousins made socially beneficial matches, in 1871 Charles married Jennette Smith, the nine-years-older daughter of a local liveryman who also worked as a coachman and postman. Not only was Charles’s father-in-law from a significantly lower class than the Tew family, he was also a Southerner, from Tennessee.

The young couple must have been aware of their status as the less successful branch of the family. After the wedding, Charles and Jennette settled down in the sparsely populated countryside of Wisconsin, where there was still free land to be had for aspiring farmers. There, in the tiny village of Janesville in Rock County, Allene was born on July 7, 1872. Hers was an unusual name, probably a variant of the Irish Eileen, and one that might have sounded more chic to Charles and Jennette.

Charles wasn’t cut out to be a pioneer, it transpired, and soon the young couple returned to Jamestown and moved into Jennette’s father’s livery stable on West Third Avenue. Charles’s father, William, had given up his business on Main Street to take over his late brother George’s role as president of the family bank. He had passed the stove and hardware store to his daughter, who had married his former helper. Charles was found an unchallenging job as assistant cashier in the bank.

Annejet van Der Zijl's Books