I grew up hundreds of miles away from Charleston, WV, but we visited at least once a year. We stayed with my grandmother, but we always went to see my mother’s aunts at their home, Glenwood.
It seems as though we always knew that the people in Glenwood’s paintings were our ancestors. Now, the word “ancestors” comes across as though the people were so long ago and so far away that we can have no real connection to them. But the way the aunts talked about them made them feel much closer, like the family they really are. Aunt Elizabeth noted that Amacetta liked to play the piano as one of us banged on its keys, and Aunt Lucy explained that the dove in the painting of the boy meant he had died. Being in our ancestors’ house and roughing up their things made us feel connected to them.
For a school project, I decided to fictionalize some of the stories about Amacetta, my great-great-great-grandmother. Knowing she liked to play the piano and that her little boy had died wasn’t enough for the assignment, so I went back to Glenwood to learn more.
Amacetta wed George William Summers, who was born in Alexandria in 1804. They moved to a farm near present-day Winfield, WV, when he was about nine. George was the last of ten children born to Ann Smith Radcliff Summers and Col. George Summers. His eldest brother, Lewis, saw to his education as a lawyer. George also served in Congress, and represented Virginia in various conferences and legislative bodies.
Amacetta and George had six children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. They lived variously in Charleston or with George’s family at Walnut Grove. The aunts had always implied that Amacetta wasn’t that comfortable with George’s family, as though they felt she were not good enough for their baby brother.
Amacetta Laidley was the first of ten children born to Mary Scales Hite Laidley and John Osborn Laidley in Cabell County in 1818. Her father served in the War of 1812, and helped found the academy which is now Marshall University. The aunts had always said Amacetta married young, and now I found out how young: about a month before her fifteenth birthday. No wonder her father insisted she finish her education first!
The child in the painting was Amacetta’s son Heber, born in 1839. Some of Amacetta’s letters have been published, and they show Heber to be a funny, smart little boy. Through these and other letters I found out that one summer, his Grandmother Summers and his uncle Lewis Summers died within a month of each other. Both were buried in the family cemetery at Walnut Grove. Heber had been a big brother for about two weeks at the time of Uncle Lewis’ death. Amacetta and baby brother Lewis stayed in Charleston while Heber and his father went to Walnut Grove for the burial. Heber was a cheery little fellow, and his parents thought he’d be a soothing balm for all those aching hearts. While they were at Walnut Grove, he came down with a cold. Since Heber was always coming down with a cold, no one thought a thing of it. But a few days later, they realized that this was no ordinary cold: Heber was a very sick little boy. Someone sent for his mother, but he died before she could get there. Amacetta was devastated.
George’s employment kept him away from home much of the time; they corresponded often. Some of Amacetta’s letters to George during one such separation were uncovered in 1985, and provide interesting vignettes of everyday life in Charleston. For example, on Friday, December 9, 1842, she wrote about George having apples shipped to her: “…my barrel of apples came safely to hand, and are very acceptable indeed.” She shared her observation about Cousin Madison from whom she and George later purchased Glenwood, noting that “from his account he handles more money than any man in the county…”
Amacetta missed George terribly during these separations. “Dear husband,” she wrote one day, “I will try to get along as well as I can during your absence; every day just before dinner and before tea I think I hear your footsteps on the stairs …”
In early December 1857, George, Amacetta and their sons, George and Lewis, moved into their new house, an estate called Glenwood. Amacetta’s cousin, Madison, had built this beautiful farmhouse five years earlier. Amacetta loved Glenwood, and growing up, we definitely felt like it was still her house. A great deal of the furniture was hers, and as far as anyone can tell from descriptions in letters and, later, from the backgrounds in photographs, it has not been rearranged since she and George moved in.
During the Civil War, both sides camped and fought at Charleston. They were there for about six weeks. Amacetta’s husband was one of several local men captured by the Confederate Army and forced on pain of death to sign an oath of loyalty to the Confederate side. In 2008, an explosion at a chemical plant some ten miles distant shook Glenwood’s walls, and rattled the cups on Amacetta’s sideboard. Not only that, but when there are fireworks at a Power game, the booming sometimes seems to come up through the floors. I often wonder if this is how the war sounded here at Glenwood, and what Amacetta must have thought while her husband was in enemy hands, as the walls shook and her silver clattered on the sideboard.
Amacetta’s faith was very sustaining in times like these. She was a devout Christian, worshipping in the Episcopal Church. After church one Sunday, she lamented in a letter to George that “it is not enough to avoid sin, but I think a christian ought to be known by his good works; Oh what would I not give, to feel conscious of trying to do my duty to God and man; to be a humble and devout christian …” She also had great musical talent, and entertained her guests regularly upon her square piano, a gift from her family. One fellow notes in a letter that she often played for him when he stopped by to give George a ride to the office, and had to wait because he wasn’t ready.
Another thing the aunts told us was that Amacetta had worried that George, 14 years her senior, would die first, leaving her alone. But Amacetta did not have to face a long, lonely widowhood after all: she died almost a year before her beloved George. Her obituary speaks of her as “distinguished for her sweet and amiable disposition, excellent judgment, independence and nice sense of propriety … In her presence, acquaintances and strangers alike felt at ease, and in her house all felt at home.”
Submitted by: Anne Hedrick Ferris