An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew(4)

And thus Allene spent the first years of her life in the commotion and equine stench of a livery in the center of Jamestown, unlike her many cousins who lived in expensive mansions on the leafy outskirts of the town. Only later, when her grandfather William withdrew from the bank, moved to a detached house on Pine Street, and had his youngest son and his wife and child come and live next to him, did she get a more distinguished place of residence.

It was clear that Allene would remain an only child—an unusual phenomenon in a prolific clan like the Tews. Also clear was that her father would never make it beyond cashier. He would be the only second-generation Tew male in Jamestown never to be lauded in the almanacs in which the era’s most prominent citizens of the region were portrayed.

On July 4, 1876, Americans celebrated one hundred years of independence. And celebrate they did, with a passion; seldom had a country been able to offer its inhabitants as many opportunities as the United States could at that moment. It was a massive, still largely virgin country full of valuable resources like wood, rivers, and ore. New technologies and inventions were the order of the day, and there was an almost unequaled mentality of ambition and daring. Everything seemed to be conspiring not only to give Americans the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as set down in the Declaration of Independence, but also to make that happiness genuinely possible.

The continent was bursting at the seams with revelry, and Jamestown proved itself up to the task. “We will celebrate!” the local newspaper had announced, months in advance. The city was dolled up like a factory girl on her wedding day, and on the great day itself, an immense parade of bands, the fire brigade, and sports associations passed through triumphal archways decorated with flowers. There were concerts, dance parties, and picnics everywhere, and in the evening a large fireworks display over Lake Chautauqua propelled the country into the next century. “How we celebrated,” the Jamestown Journal sighed the next day. “Twenty thousand people come to the front—and go home happy!”

In subsequent years, new inventions like the combustion engine and developments like the large-scale application of steel heralded the arrival of a second Industrial Revolution, and prosperity in North America became unstoppable. The United States’ share of worldwide industrial output grew to 30 percent, almost as much as that of its former motherland, England, which had considered itself the undisputed leader of the world’s economy up to that point.

The Americans, who had been dependent on Europe for many of their resources before the Civil War, now began to export products back to the Old World at competitive prices. Entrepreneurs, still unhindered by limiting factors like income tax or trade regulations, made unprecedented fortunes in a matter of years. Origin had become unimportant—only individual ambition, cleverness, and daring mattered. The number of millionaires grew, in a few decades, from twenty to forty thousand. The American population tripled between 1865 and 1900 but became, as a whole, a whopping thirteen times richer.

Everything seemed possible in the Gilded Age, as Mark Twain called this period of national expansion and unbridled optimism. Paupers came in rags on boats from Europe and worked themselves up to being millionaires. The attraction of this country of unlimited opportunities had never been greater for fortune hunters than it was now. During the first half of the nineteenth century, around two and a half million immigrants risked the ocean crossing; during the second half, the stream swelled to a dazzling eleven million.

So perhaps Allene’s father wasn’t a success story like the rest of her family, and perhaps her rich cousins and classmates at the Jamestown Union School considered that a reason to treat her with a certain pity, but young as she was, she held her head high. And for good reason, in the scarce childhood photographs of her that are known, it is apparent that Allene Tew inherited one thing that couldn’t be obtained with money: beauty. She grew up with something better than wealth, a dream—the American dream, in which you could become whatever you wanted, wherever you came from. In which, as her great-uncle George and her grandfather had proved, you could start out in a primitive cabin in the middle of the hostile wilderness and end up in a marble bank building in a booming city, a city that you had wrested from the woods with your bare hands.


The Glittering Paradise

Years later, when she was an old woman and no longer needed or was able to worry about her own children, Allene wrote of the possessive urge parents often felt and how important it was not to succumb to it:

Everyone has the right to live her own life, NO parent can destroy the youth and joy of their child. They use all kinds of excuses to try and cover their selfishness but if the daughter or son do take the bit in their teeth and LIVE the mother always gets on allright.

“Everyone has the right to live her own life . . .” And it sounds as though Allene had personal experience testing that. And so she had. If there was ever a girl in Jamestown who gave her parents reason to worry, it was Allene.

Charles and Jennette Tew may have been able to keep their beautiful, impetuous daughter in check if Jamestown had remained the rugged yet uninspiring pioneer community it had been during their youth. That this didn’t happen was, ironically enough, the fault of Methodists and other religious groups who, halfway through the 1870s, discovered in Chautauqua the earthly paradise of their dreams.

On the northern side of the still lovely and unspoiled Lake Chautauqua, the Methodists built the Chautauqua Institution, a kind of permanent summer colony created to promote all sorts of edifying subjects, such as art, science, religion, patriotism, and education. The institution soon attracted important visitors, such as the inventor Thomas Edison, the writer Rudyard Kipling, and, in 1880, even President James Garfield. When he left, Garfield devoted a lyrical speech to the place: “It has been the struggle of the world to get more leisure, but it was left for Chautauqua to show how to use it.”

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