Sunday, December 6, 2009
Notable Women Ancestors: Bessie Coleman
How difficult was it for a woman to go into business for herself in 1912? My mother had five aunts who never married and I was lucky enough to know four of them. Aunt Bess taught me to pick out a few notes on the piano in her parlor, and built Lincoln Logs with me. In her younger days she was a Cooperstown businesswoman
Bessie Mary Colman was born 3 May 1884 in Middlefield, Otsego County, NY. She was the first child born to Horace Colman and Maggie Gilgun. Horace had also been born in Otsego County, as were his father and grandfather before him. His great-grandfather Samuel Colman was an early settler of Springfield, and his forebearers had lived in Massachusetts for as many as six generations before. Maggie was reportedly born in England of Irish parents and came to the U.S. as a young child.
Her brother, Thomas William Colman, was born when Bessie was six years old, on 19 November 1890. They grew up in the Brooklyn Avenue home that their father had built near the Susquehanna River. They had many cousins living nearby from Horace’s large family. Town league baseball was an important recreational activity, and must have been a part of Bessie’s early life, with games played on the field adjacent to their home. Her father Horace was a catcher for his brother John, and the pair was so good that they were asked to tryout for the Philadelphia Athletics professional baseball team in the 1880’s.
Bessie attended Cooperstown Union School and Academy. She was proud of her academic achievements and preserved the records of her progress. A certificate issued on 15 March 1895 documented her promotion to the Academic Department 9th Grade. She was not yet 11 years old. In January of 1897 she passed reading, writing, spelling, elementary English, arithmetic and geography and was awarded a Regents Preacademic Certificate – eighth year. In June of 1898 she passed English composition, botany, United States history, rhetoric, physiology and hygiene, and drawing to receive her first year (12 count) certificate. She placed second in reading in the Caleb G. Hall Washington Address Prize Contest.
In 1899 she added competency in English literature, English selections, Latin, and algebra in January exams, and in June: American literature, American selections, German, and plane geometry. In 1900 she completed a second year of German, Caesar’s commentaries, physical geography, English history, civics and bookkeeping.
Her Academic Diploma from the Cooperstown High School was awarded in June of 1900 under the name of Elizabeth M. Colman. She was only sixteen. The 21st annual commencement exercises were held at Firemen’s Hall on 21 June 1900 and a class of 25 graduated. Bessie’s essay was entitled “Cultivation of Friendship.” She performed a duet, presumably on piano, with Lizzie Cruttenden playing “The Dragon Fighter.”
In 1901 she received an Advanced Academic Diploma for completion of an additional school year. Courses included advanced English, history of literature, zoology, advanced U.S. history, advanced drawing, and commercial geography. On the first of August, she received a certificate from the State of New York for completion of the Teachers Training Class at Cooperstown and was certified to teach public school for the next three years. The certificate was renewed and validated twice by the school commissioner for Otsego County, extended once for three years and again for five years to 1911. For at least part of that time she taught in Fly Creek at a one-room school. Her contract for 1907-8 for District #5 in Middlefield paid $9 per week, payable monthly.
In 1902 she was appointed organist at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Cooperstown, a position which she must have retained for many years. Her niece Betty remembers sitting in the choir loft with her during Masses in the 1930’s.
In 1907 an event occurred which must have shaken Bess deeply. Her cousin Edith Colman Clark, who had grown up just up the street, disappeared from her home in Middlefield. Bess had played the organ at her home wedding a few years earlier. She was eight years older than Bess and had a 4-year-old son. She left a note saying she would never be seen again. Three years went by before Edith’s remains were found not far from her home, with a bottle of laudanum indicating a suicide.
In the 1910 census she was enumerated as a teacher, living at home with her parents and brother. At some point after that Bess considered a career change. In 1912 she received a letter of reference from the First National Bank in Cooperstown to establish credit as she went into the millinery business. The letter stated that she had experience in this area. Many years later, hat forms and materials were found in the attic of her home. Her shop was on Main Street, and photos show that she employed other women. Later, the shop was contained within the Ellsworth and Sill department store. At some time she began spelling Coleman with an “e”
Although her brother Will was included with the family in the 1910 census as a farm laborer, as a young man he did quite a bit of traveling, reportedly fueled by problems getting along with his father. He was a regular correspondent with his sister, sending penny post cards from across the country. He and his friends seemed to be traveling looking for work, and he found it in New York City periodically.
Horace Colman died at home at 59 in 1915 from a heart ailment, which had bothered him for about two years, according to his obituary.
Brother Will joined the Army in May of 1918 and served in France during WWI. He continued to write regularly to Bess at home. His letters provide a personal view of Army life and his strong connection to his sister.
In the 1920 and 1930 census Bess was a described as a milliner.
Her mother died in 1922 at age 63, when Bess was 38. They had always lived together.
Will married Sara Meeneghan of Springfield on 27 October 1923. Bess was their attendant. The newspaper report said, “The bridesmaid was attired in black roshanara crepe. Her hat was black and silver and her corsage bouquet was of pink roses.” They shared the family home with Bess and had two daughters in the next two years, Betty (Mary Elizabeth) and Peggy (Margaret Ellen). She enjoyed playing the piano, which was in the front “parlor.”
In 1930, Bess served on the committee for the Cooperstown World War Memorial, which was dedicated on the anniversary of Armistice Day. Included in those memorialized on the stone was a cousin, Joseph Coleman, who died of influenza in France just after the armistice.
Bess enjoyed her nieces as they grew up, went on to further education, and married. Her brother Bill died in 1953, having worked at the Iroquois Mill lumber mill near his home, as his father had before him. Although Bill didn’t live to see his grandchildren, Bess did get to enjoy visits from Betty and her two daughters from Clinton, NY.
Bess died at 79 on 21 October 1963 in the Clark Nursing Home in Richfield Springs, NY. She had selected and revised her list of poll bearers in her later years. She did not wish to be buried in her glasses because they were not worn when she slept. She did not need false teeth.
She is buried in the Irish Hill cemetery in Cooperstown with her parents. Her estate was valued at over $10,000 and divided between her two nieces. Sara continued to live in the family house until shortly before her death in 1969.