Charlotte Gardner Briggs: an Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times

Charlotte Briggs, c. 1871

When Charlotte Briggs died in 1940 in her 99th year, she was “reported to be Hingham’s oldest resident.”  According to her descendants she had another claim to fame: when she was young, she shook hands with Abraham Lincoln. She left no written account of this, or of any other matter, but it is the story she told her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Charlotte, my great-great grandmother, was born 179 years ago, in May 1842, to Hiram and Lucinda Bailey Gardner. Hiram was a widower with four children when he married Lucinda. They proceeded to have nine more. From their farm in Hanson, Hiram supplied timbers and masts to shipbuilders on the North River. For some years, the farm was on the Boston to Plymouth stagecoach road and when the stage pulled in to change horses in Hiram’s barnyard, it was met with great excitement by Charlotte and her siblings.

The oldest of her mother’s nine children, Charlotte spent her days taking care of children, baking, gardening, and providing community service. She and her mother attended meetings at the Quaker Meeting House in Pembroke as Lucinda was drawn to the Quaker religion of her Bailey grandfather and uncles, who were preachers and abolitionists.

As a girl, Charlotte was a student at Hanover Academy, and stayed to teach for a while after she completed her education. During the Civil War, she lived at home with her parents and worked as a shoemaker. In 1871, at age 28, she married William Briggs, who was 16 years her senior, and moved to his nearby farm in Norwell.

Marriage and Motherhood

Charlotte and William Briggs in front of their house.

So began Charlotte’s busy life as a wife and soon-to-be mother of a girl and two boys. The large farm was a family business; in addition to growing crops, William cut ice from their pond and stored it in an ice house on the property until summer when they would sell it. The boys worked with their father, and daughter Frances helped her mother cook, clean and care for the gardens.

Charlotte’s child-raising years passed unrecorded, as did most women’s at a time when their work revolved around the home, family, farm and church. But Charlotte’s children grew, and married and two of them had children of their own.  It is here that we get a glimpse of Charlotte’s life and the farm her grandchildren remember so fondly, because her granddaughter, my great-aunt Ruth, did record her memories.

Ruth details “the garden lands, hayfields, pasturelands, and orchards … The upland pasture had grown into delicious high-bushed blueberries. In back of all this was acres of woodland. The barn housed four horses, two cows and pigs. Around the house to the side and back were pear trees, sour apple trees, grapevines, blue and raspberry currant and gooseberry bushes … In the fall, the cellar was full of vegetables, barrels of apples, and a closet full of preserves.”

These descriptions leave little doubt as to what Charlotte did with her days. Ruth also remembers “going to the Quaker Meeting House with my grandmother Charlotte.”

Thirty years in Hingham

4. William Briggs, Charlotte’s husband, with granddaughters Ruth and Amy Litchfield. 1897.

Hard work did nothing to shorten the lives of the Briggses. William lived to be 83, and Charlotte lived into her 99th year. When William died in 1910, Charlotte was only 68. Her children were married and had homes of their own. The farm was too big and too much work for her alone, so she sold it, living first with her son and then moving permanently to her daughter Frances’s house in Hingham.

To understand the Hingham household Charlotte moved into is to understand the shattered lives of widows, young and old, aging without a safety net, and the challenges facing women who lost their income with their husbands, because the family had been devasted by death.

At home were matriarch Sarah Trowbridge Litchfield, 75, who was mourning the deaths of her only two sons who died within two years of each other, her widowed daughters-in-law, Martha and Frances, as well as Frances’s daughters, Amy and Ruth, 18 and 16. It was a house of loss—the sons, the husbands, the father. It was a house of mourning. It was a house of women.

But, this house of women would provide the support they each needed. In the winter of 1916, they buried homeowner Sarah Litchfield, 80. The matriarch gone, the house stayed in the family, and the women supported themselves through dressmaking, real estate sales, and savings. They sent Amy to Skidmore School of Arts and Ruth to nursing school.

Charlotte was there for all these years and more. Her granddaughter Amy married in 1917, and her new husband Oliver Ferris moved into the house of women. They had three children, but not before a pandemic stuck and a world war was fought. Four generations were at home now. Granddaughter Ruth married and moved to the house next door and the corner of School and Pleasant streets became a family enclave.

In the ’20s, the introduction of radio made baseball fans of the whole family, and throughout the Great Depression of the ’30s, Charlotte’s gardening and farming skills helped keep the family fed. She was often seen crossing the lawn between her granddaughters’ houses, checking on this and that, stopping to pull a weed or talk to a child. She saw her grandchildren grow to be young adults.

Charlotte Gardner Briggs, 95; her granddaughter, Amy Litchfield Ferris, 42; her daughter, Frances Briggs Litchfield, 66. 1937. School St., Hingham.

In her 90s, she grew frail and her daughter and granddaughters cared for her at home until she died of old age “after a week’s illness.” Funeral services were held at her home on School Street, a minister of the Old Ship Church officiated, and she was buried with her husband in the Hanover Center Cemetery

Charlotte and Lincoln

Did Charlotte shake hands with Abraham Lincoln? He was in the Boston area in 1848; Charlotte was only six years old and would have been with her mother or relatives. Would the tall congressman have bent down to shake hands with a child? Maybe. He was in New England again in 1860; Charlotte was 18. Did she see him then, or did she travel out of state to hear him speak? Maybe. But I am quite sure that, at some time, Charlotte Gardner Briggs did shake hands with the man. She was not a woman who would have made up a story.

Notes

“[R]eported to be Hingham’s oldest resident,” “after a week’s illness.”:” Obituary, Hingham Journal, Dec. 12, 1940.

William S. Briggs married Charlotte S. Gardner on Feb. 15, 1871. Three children: (1) Frances m. Wilbur Litchfield, had two children. (2) Joseph married Maude Whiting. (3) Walter S. m. Charlotte Osborne, had two children.

The Hingham Historical Society thanks Meg Kenagy not only for this post but for permission to share family photos.

Ruth Litchfield Marsh (1893-1991), Hingham Visiting Nurse

Ruth Briggs Litchfield, 19 years old, 1912. Photo courtesy of Meg Kenagy

At the end of August 1918, the worldwide influenza pandemic hit the Boston area. Doctors and hospitals were overwhelmed. Red Cross volunteers and nurses stepped in to help. In Hingham, Ruth Litchfield Marsh, two years out of nursing school, worked throughout the crisis. She was 25 years old. It was through this experience that she became committed to public health, working over her long life with the Hingham Visiting Nurses Association and as a volunteer for South Shore Hospital.

 

Ruth, the elder of S. Frances and Wilbur Litchfield’s two daughters. Photo courtesy of Meg Kenagy.

Ruth was born in April 1893 at 11 Union Street, Hingham, the first of two daughters of Sarah Frances Briggs and Wilbur Trowbridge Litchfield. She lived most of her life on School Street. She married George Marsh in May 1919, had four children and many grandchildren. Her house and gardens were always beautifully kept and she always had time to bake a casserole for a neighbor, talk to a child, and teach sewing. When she died at 97 years old, she was remembered for her many contributions to the town:  Girl Scout leader, nurse, volunteer, member of the Women’s Alliance of the Old Ship Church.  She was my grand-aunt and I, as well as many others, remember her compassion and gentle sense of humor.  For more about the life of Ruth Litchfield Marsh, you can read: The House on School Street, Eight Generations, Two hundred and four years. One family.

 

 

A Tale of One Family

A Review of Meg Ferris Kenagy’s Book The House on School Street: Eight Generations. Two Hundred and Four Years. One Family.

Not many people can say their family lived in the same house for eight generations, and even fewer strive to uncover the lives of these ancestors. Meg Ferris Kenagy is one of these rare individuals as she dives head first into this challenge and presents her discoveries in her book The House on School Street: Eight Fenerations. Two Hundred and Four years. One Family. Kenagy brings the history of her family’s house to life through numerous stories about her ancestors. We experience their lives and deaths, births and marriages, and the resulting joys and heartaches that accompany each event.

74 School (c) 1890
Martha Sprague Litchfield, left, and Sarah Trowbridge Litchfield. Circa 1890. Photo courtesy of the Hingham Historical Society.

Kenagy’s vivid descriptions of her family, the house, and Hingham make it feel like she is sitting down with us and flipping through pages of a photo album while sharing her family’s story. We see Colonel Charles Cushing building the house in 1785 after fighting in the Revolutionary War, and we watch subsequent generations move into and out of the family home. We learn of the successes and struggles of the family as they find ways to make a living in a changing world. As Kenagy shifts the narrative’s focus to each owner chapter after chapter, she recognizes the unique relationship each family member had with the house on School Street. She successfully sees the house through each of their eyes.

Although Kenagy admits there are gaps in her family’s story that research cannot fill, she does not let this obstacle frustrate her. Instead, Kenagy embraces what she does not know and proposes answers to the questions she cannot answer. By doing so, she becomes more attuned to the motivations, fears, and struggles of her ancestors. When Kenagy does know the answer to certain questions, she occasionally quotes letters and other sources to add another layer to her family’s story.

74 School Street 1889.jpeg

A large barn can be seen to the left of the house in this 1889 photo. A carriage house is to the right of the house. Photo courtesy of the Hingham Historical Society.

While this book presents the story about eight generations of a family, it also provides an overview of the history of Hingham. Through Kenagy’s detailed descriptions, we see Hingham’s transformation from a small village to a bustling wartime shipyard. Selected quotes from sources like the History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts and the Hingham Journal bring the town’s history to life. By acknowledging the history of the town, we can clearly recognize the family’s influence on Hingham’s community.

You can sense writing this book was a deeply personal experience for Kenagy. Not only does it document how she confirms family stories, but also how she uncovers family secrets. We are excited to learn more about Meg Kenagy’s experience writing this book and researching her family’s history when she comes to the Hingham Heritage Museum at Old Derby for a talk and book signing on Saturday, October 27, 2018 at 3:00pm. Please join us!