I find it an interesting coincidence that I discovered an old newspaper stuffed in the flue of the fireplace in the Matron’s Room dated Feb. 1900 - as it was in June of that year Mrs. Eleanor Worthington Tiffin Cook passed away in the home. Ellen, as she was referred, was born in 1815 – the daughter of Ohio’s first governor Edward Tiffin. She spent her whole life in Chillicothe and wrote many times about the unique social scene of the city in its early days. She bought our home in 1879 with her husband Matthew Scott Cook. Upon their acquisition they built the formal dining room and orangery on the back of the house, site of what was formerly a courtyard. Ellen had always had a love of plants. It has been written that when she was a young girl she used to lie in the garden and whisper to the plants. Her orangery was filled with all sorts of tropical and exotic species. She had a deep love of orchids, and cherished a set of lovely, tropical palm plants that were a gift to her from her niece and husband, President Rutherford B. Hayes and Lucy Webb.
There is an interesting story surrounding those palms, one which I cannot elaborate on in this post. I’ll save it for a time when you stay at The Willis-James.
Matthew passed away here in 1882 and Ellen continued to live in the home along with her unmarried sister Diathea Madison Tiffin until their passing at the end of the century. Mrs. Cook conducted some of the first research on the history of our home, and we attribute those leads to helping us gain a deeper understanding of its past. Upon Mrs. Cook's death, the house passed along her matrilineal line for another 89 years, with names such as McCallum, Towar and Biggs. The last of the family lineage to own the home was Eleanor “Tita” Biggs. Steph and I have become friends with the Biggs children and just love when they come to visit and share old family stories.
To understand Eleanor Worthington Tiffin Cook’s character, I quote from her obituary in the Scioto Gazette: “Possessed of a nature that was pure, generous and ideal, imbued with a love of charity limited alone by the means within her power, Christian like in all her thoughts and deeds, of gentle, kindly disposition, companionable in spirit, a devout lover of the beauties of nature, these were attributes of the noble woman whose admirable earthly career has been terminated.”
Thomas James was first married to Charlotte Massie, sister to Gen. Nathaniel Massie. I'm still in the process of researching her, but information is scarce. I do know that she was a lovely woman, but tragically died at the young age of 27.
A few years later Thomas James married Jane Byrne Claypoole from Philadelphia. Now, Jane hails from a very prominent family whose lineage can be traced back to the 1500s in England. One of her ancestors was a close friend of William Penn and witnessed his signature on the Pennsylvania Charter granted by King Charles II. Another married the legendary Betsy Ross. Jane's father, Abraham George Claypoole, was a captain during the Revolution and one of the founding members of the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati. In those days, being born into a family as esteemed as hers ensured that Jane become a woman of presence and dignity.
She wed Thomas James in 1819 in Chillicothe and moved into the home he already owned on Fifth St. She immediately became stepmother to 4 children, and later had 9 children of her own with Thomas. This growing family was the primary reason Thomas and Jane expanded the Fifth St. house so many times.
Mrs. James was a queen of society. In addition to being a loving mother, she was extremely hospitable and entertaining. Her close gal pals were none other than the cream of the crop of Chillicothe’s social elite. She was fashionable, yet conservative. She adorned the lawn of their home with beautiful shrubbery and roses. (As we landscape The Willis-James property this spring/summer we seek to honor her by planting several rose varieties) Jane's daughters were considered by many to be belles of the town, and her sons worked in her husband’s businesses. The James' were staunch, participating members of St. Paul's Episcopal church, and apparently each Sunday when the large family arrived for service it was quite the sight. Jane Byrne Claypoole James passed away in her Fifth St. home in 1864 roughly 8 years after her husband Thomas had. Her memory, and perhaps spirit, are still alive here at The Willis-James, though.