The Story of Ellen Axson Wilson’s Tragic Return to Rome, Georgia in 1914
Please welcome guest author Nancy Loveday Smith. Smith is a graphic artist, marketing consultant and long-time volunteer board member of the Rome Area Council for the Arts, the organization that is hosting the 2014 Ellen Axson Wilson Homecoming. She is a native of Rome, Georgia and grew up on the Berry School campus. She is a graduate of Mercer University, Macon, and resides in Rome with her attorney husband, S. David Smith, Jr. On March 11, Smith will present a slide-lecture and discussion about Ellen Axson Wilson and the 2014 year of activities planned in Rome at the Rome Area History Museum. The public is invited to attend the free lecture. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fifty years after the Civil War, a new era of progress was dawning in Rome, Georgia. Electricity had arrived, new manufacturing facilities were opening and the population was growing. Newly elected Chamber of Commerce President Wright Willingham declared that the town needed a large celebratory event to mark Rome’s progress as a regionally emerging city of culture and commerce.
Willingham organized an event to be held in October 1914 to be called “The Homecoming.” Romans past and present would come together to celebrate the progress of the city. He proposed $10,000 be raised for the event. To insure the success of this event he planned to personally invite former Romans—and the First Lady of the United States, Ellen Axson Wilson, was the most famous former Roman of the day.
The invitation issued by Willingham was accepted in a letter from the White House received in May of 1914. Rome’s own First Lady would be the Guest of Honor at “The Homecoming”. Her husband and three daughters were also invited; however Mrs. Wilson’s letter indicated that she was not sure they could attend.
The ironic and sad fact is that Ellen Axson Wilson did indeed “come home” in 1914, but not to enjoy parades and illuminated streets, but in a coffin to be buried beside her parents in Rome’s Myrtle Hill Cemetery. She missed “The Homecoming” by three months, as her funeral and interment occurred in Rome on August 11, 1914.
ELLEN AXSON – GROWING UP IN ROME
Ellen Axson was the eldest of four children born to Presbyterian minister Rev. Samuel Edward Axson and his wife Margaret Jane “Janie” Hoyt Axson. She was born in Savannah on May 15, 1860. During the years of the Civil War, the young family moved several times, from church to church and from relative to relative. Rev. Axson served briefly as a Chaplin in the Army of the CSA. Shortly after the War ended, Rev. Axson was called to lead the First Presbyterian Church of Rome.
The family moved to Rome in March of 1866. Ellen’s mother, Janie Hoyt Axson, had been college educated and taught her daughter to read at a very young age. The Rome Female College was reopened 1871, and 11-year-old Ellen was enrolled as a “novian.” She was instructed in algebra, philosophy, logic, natural history and botany; but the subject at which she excelled most was art. Her art instructor, Miss Helen Fairchild, had been trained in New York and Paris. When Miss Fairchild submitted a portfolio of her best students’ work to a Paris art competition, Ellen received a bronze medal in drawing at age 14.
Ellen had three siblings born in Rome: two brothers, Stockton and Edward, and a sister, Madge, born 21 years after Ellen. The birth of Ellen’s sister Madge caused her mother to suffer “child-birth” fever and die within weeks of the birth. Ellen was left to assume the duties of raising her brothers and managing the household. Her baby sister was sent to her mother’s sister in Gainesville, GA.
In April of 1883, when Ellen attended her father’s church, she entered that Sunday morning in a black dress and veil of mourning, holding the hand of her youngest brother, Edward. A casual observer would assume she was a young widow; however Woodrow Wilson was no casual observer. He noticed her beauty, and sensed her intelligence and high spirit.
Wilson was in Rome visiting relatives, and on legal business for his mother. He asked his relatives who this lovely young lady might be, and was told all about Ellen. That afternoon he went to call on Rev. Axson. Wilson’s father was also a Presbyterian minister, so a visit to another minister’s family was considered proper. His actual intention was to see Ellen again and find out more about her.
That spring and summer, he returned to Rome many times. A romance blossomed between Ellen and the young Atlanta lawyer. Woodrow decided that summer to abandon his legal practice and return to school to obtain a doctorate in political science. He planned to enroll in Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD in late September.
By coincidence, Ellen and Woodrow met in Ashville, NC, in September of 1883. Woodrow persuaded Ellen to stay an extra day and see him off to Baltimore before she returned to Rome. On the spur of the moment, Woodrow asked Ellen to marry him before he boarded his train, and she accepted.
Ellen returned to Rome to care for her ailing father. She had to make the sad decision to leave Rome in November 1883, taking her father and brothers back to Savannah. Several months later, her father was admitted to the Georgia Mental Hospital at Milledgeville, where he died in May of 1884.
Woodrow and Ellen wrote each other many letters during their engagement period. Their love deepened through this correspondence. Fortunately, Ellen’s father left a substantial inheritance that allowed Ellen to pursue her dream of attending art school in New York City.
In September 1884, she enrolled in the Student Art League in New York City. Her art talent was enhanced there, and she was quickly promoted to advanced classes in drawing and painting.
In the spring of 1885, Woodrow Wilson asked her to give up art school to marry him immediately. He had been offered a professorship at Bryn Mawr, a female college in Philadelphia. They married on June 23, 1885, honeymooned in North Carolina, and entered the academic world that fall, and Ellen disclosed that she was pregnant with their first child.
Ellen returned to Georgia in May 1886 for the birth of her first daughter, Margaret. She also returned to Gainesville in 1887 for the birth of her second daughter, Jessie.
Woodrow accepted his second teaching position at Wesleyan College in Middletown, CT, in 1888, and their third daughter, Eleanor as born there in 1889.
In 1890, Woodrow accepted a teaching position at Princeton, his alma mater. He quickly rose in the ranks and became President in 1902. As Wilson was often away, Ellen had time to return to painting. She began to study her favorite subject again at their spacious Princeton home, Prospect House. She also loved the outdoors and established a well-landscaped garden.
However, tragedy continued to haunt her life. She sunk into a depression after the untimely death of her youngest brother, Edward, who drowned in the Etowah River in Cherokee County, GA. As a result of Ellen’s friendship with Martha Berry, a scholarship was established in Edward’s memory at Berry College. Woodrow encouraged her to spend the summer at an art colony in Old Lyme, CT, where many American Impressionists gathered to paint plein-air.
Wilson left Princeton in 1910 to run for Governor of New Jersey. Ellen became the perfect political wife as she helped stage advantageous political meetings with dignitaries such as former President Grover Cleveland and William Jennings Bryan.
Woodrow served as New Jersey’s governor for less than two years before being nominated for President of the United States by the Democratic Party in the summer of 1912. He was elected in November and was inaugurated the 28th President of the United States on March 4, 1913.
Ellen was uncertain about becoming First Lady, but quickly rose to the task. She soon set her own agenda by becoming involved in Washington social causes, and hosting receptions of all sizes. She also added beauty and art to the White House. She redecorated the living quarters, using bright colors and Appalachian quilts and art. A top floor art studio with natural lighting was also included in the renovations. She took the White House gardener back to Princeton to visit her Prospect House gardens, and they designed the White House Rose Garden within her first year as First Lady.
During all of this, she still had time to arrange the marriage ceremonies of her daughters, Jessie and Eleanor, in the White House, and mentor a young assistant cabinet member’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt.
In the spring of 1914, Ellen became ill and sustained a serious fall in the White House living quarters. Her health declined rapidly, and she died in the White House on August 6. The main cause was listed as Bright’s Disease (a kidney disorder).
After a White House memorial ceremony on August 10, a private train brought her body to Rome, to be buried in Myrtle Hill Cemetery beside her parents.
Rome’s Homecoming Committee was quickly turned into a Memorial Committee, as the small southern town had to rapidly prepare for a national ceremony. A memorial service was held at Rome’s First Presbyterian Church, on August 11, 1914, where her father had served as minister.
Thousands of people flooded into Rome to pay their respects to the President and his family. The buildings and bridges along Rome’s main street, Broad Street, were draped in black and white bunting. Hundreds of floral arrangements from throughout the world were sent for the service, and were taken to the gravesite.
Wilson and his daughters returned on their private train that evening to Washington. Wilson never returned to Rome, and he remarried sixteen months later.
Wilson’s initial plans were to be buried in Rome beside Ellen; however his second wife had other ideas. He died in 1924, and was buried in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. His widow, Edith Galt Wilson, lived until 1961, and by virtue of surviving almost 50 years after she was First Lady, it is she who is largely remembered as Wilson’s wife.
HOMECOMING 2014 in Rome, Georgia
The Rome Area Council for the Arts, Oak Hill and the Martha Berry Museum, and the Rome Area History Museum are planning a year of memory to Ellen Axson Wilson during 2014. An exhibition of twenty of Ellen’s original oil paintings will be on display from July 1 until October 31, 2014 at the Martha Berry Museum, a Centennial Memorial Service is planned for August 11, 2014, and an exhibit at the Rome Area History Museum will honor Rome’s First Lady, who missed her own Homecoming 100 years ago. The President Woodrow Wilson House, a National Trust Historic Site, Washington, D.C. and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, VA, are assisting in the exhibition. As a result of the activities of this year, the Rome Area Council for the Arts is planning a permanent memorial statue to serve as a lasting legacy to Rome’s own First Lady. RACA invites contributions to the Ellen Axson Wilson Memorial Fund, and encourages visits to RACA’s website, for more information about the events and the memorial.
• Ellen Axson Wilson: First Lady Between Two Worlds.
By Frances Wright Saunders. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.)
• Ellen and Edith, Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies.
By Kristie Miller. (University Press of Kansas, 2010.)
• My Aunt Louisa and Woodrow Wilson.
By Margaret Axson Elliott (Chapel Hill, The University of North
Carolina Press, 1944.)
• The Priceless Gift, the Love Letters of Woodrow Wilson and Ellen Axson
Wilson. Edited by Eleanor Wilson McAdoo (McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1962.)
• Rome Tribune Herald of 1914. (Microfilm of various newspaper articles
at Rome-Floyd County Library).