Three generations of Small family members visit ancestral Elmwood Mansion in York County, Pa.
Ann Small Niess, with husband Dick, tosses her wedding bouquet from the stairs in the front hall of her childhood home, the Elmwood House, now the Elmwood Mansion, in 1947. Also of interest: Former Hobbit House resident: ‘We loved that house and the Elmwood neighborhood’ and York’s Elmwood Mansion book more than history of a house and Elmwood Mansion move led to shapely dinner crowd.
The Elmwood Mansion, so visible from Interstate 83, and the busy streets of East York/Spring Garden Township has fascinated people for years.
But what of the people who lived there before its conversion into a Memorial Hospital conference center?
My York Sunday News column (to appears 3/28/10) tells about a multi-generational family living there, one of York County’s most distinguished – the Smalls:
Ann Small Niess, right, is photographed with her daughter, Linda Tartak, and granddaughters, Victoria Gauthier, front, and Carolina Marrelli, left, on those same steps during a visit to the Elmwood Mansion earlier this month.
York countian-turned-Floridian Ann Small Niess was back in her hometown earlier this month to teach a lesson about family history.
Her daughter, Linda Tartak, and granddaughters Victoria Gauthier and Carolina Marrelli were her enthusiastic students.
I was, too.
The classroom was packed with meaning.
It was Ann Niess’s childhood home — the Elmwood House, better known as the Elmwood Mansion.
Few York County houses have as storied pasts as this former Spring Garden Township antebellum farmhouse, complete with that columned, plantation look.
As the story goes, planter Jacob Brillinger built the house for his bride to be. That marriage never went down, but the house went up anyway in 1835.
After that lonely start, Elmwood gained a crowd of lore — all of it interesting and much of it true.
It was reportedly a stop on the Underground Railroad. That may be true, but like many York County structures from that period, that claim awaits appropriate research and National Park Service certification.
Confederate troops invading York County camped on its grounds in 1863. Those grubby grayclads, standing out against the yellow brick farmhouse, were on their way to Wrightsville. There, the rebels’ eastward march was stopped when Union forces torched the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge.
When the invaders counter marched to Gettysburg, they reportedly left one of their men behind. His presence is reported today, along with a hoop-skirted woman, among the apparitions sighted or experienced by an array of Elmwood occupants for more than 100 years. So, Elmwood comes up big on the short list of most-discussed haunted houses in York County.
And the mansion also up and moved in 1905. That is, it was jacked up 10 feet in the air and then lowered onto wooden ties.
Three mule-powered windlasses pulled the mansion 800 feet to the
present site, an intersecting street to the Elmwood neighborhood then going in.
A family story indicates the house was moved after a series of fires demolished a nearby mill, creamery and big barn. Ann Small Niess’s widowed grandmother, Mrs. John Henry McKinnon Small, refused to live there any longer.
These stories are attached to the house itself.
But what about the people who made it a home?
Early in her visit, Ann Small Niess sat at the long table outfitted for owner Memorial Hospital’s meetings.
That room running the width of the house was split into two chambers when the J. Edgar Small family lived there from the 1920s through the mid-1950s.
As her family listened and recorded her remarks via a video camera, Ann Niess recited Elmwood’s story from prepared notes:
“I can’t begin to tell you how happy it made me feel when Victoria asked me to narrate about my own youthful experiences while living here,” her notes state, “and I’m so grateful to have the chance to be here trying to fulfill her request.”
Thereafter, she and her family spent two hours walking through its rooms, talking about life in that grand home.
Consider the meaning held by the front hall, for example.
There, the ceiling in this grand entrance was high enough that Ann and her father could play shuttle cock, akin to badminton, sometimes reaching 100 hits before a miss.
And that long banister that still beckons you to risk sliding down it today naturally lured 1930s youngsters, too.
The banister’s main post had a removable top, akin to that which caused George Bailey such frustration in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Ann hid costume jewelry in the cavity below that top, forgot about it and then retrieved that long-lost treasure some years later.
In 1947, the house was home to her wedding reception, and Ann Small Niess stood on those same stairs with new husband, Dick, and tossed her bouquet to unmarried girls below.
As the tour was ending, I joined Ann Niess’s daughter and granddaughters in strolling through the third floor, which included peeks through two small doors into the attic.
As best as anyone could tell, we did not wake any ghosts residing up there.
Throughout the tour and Ann Niess’s narrative, I thought often about how the three generations of this family had achieved something that day that so many never do.
Instead of talking about exploring their roots, they started digging.
I thought about one of my favorite authors, Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, whose writings focus on the importance of place and community and family and the connections between them.
“Make a home,” M.A. Grubb writes in summarizing a piece of Berry’s thinking. “Help to make a community. Be loyal to what you have made.”
Grubb writes in a Kentucky-Tennessee scholarly journal that Berry is the fifth generation of his father’s family and the sixth generation of his mom’s to farm in Henry County, Ky.
“Loyal to the cyclic vision, he knows the history of his ancestors on the land,” he wrote, “and he understands how each has affected the other.”
I suspect Wendell Berry would give a big nod to Ann Small Niess and her family’s return to Elmwood, with its farming pedigree.
Ann Small Niess’s family, indeed, traveled far and dug deep that March day to pull up a treasured piece of their past.
In reflecting on the visit three weeks later, granddaughter Victoria Gauthier remained enthused.
“I’m so proud and honored to be part of the Small family and to know our ancestors left the legacy of helping to build York into the city it is today and played an important part in our history,” she wrote in an e-mail.
She and her mother, Linda, are planning to visit Hayes, Va., where an uncle holds a repository of family photo albums.
There, they expect to find photos of the Elmwood House on the move in 1905.
And then Elmwood settled firmly on its new foundation, providing a base that Ann Small Niess and her family have found to gain family strength and meaning.
Assessing the tour
In a recent e-mail, excerpted here, Victoria Gauthier provided her reaction to the early-March tour her grandmother, Ann Small Niess, gave of her childhood home, the Elmwood Mansion.
“We were so fascinated! My sister and I grew up with my Grandma telling us Elmwood stories and our family history. To be in the home our family owned for almost 100 years and to hear more stories was extremely exciting. It made the stories we’ve heard for years come to life.
“Our trip to York was an experience we will never forget and will be passed along to our children and our children’s children. My Grandmother has always had the unique gift of making history come to life and that is what she has given us. You can’t put a price tag on that.
“I felt like we also got to know the ‘child’ part, ‘teenage’ part and ‘young adult’ part of my Grandmother . . . instead of just knowing her as her role as a grandmother. That makes me cherish and relate to her even more.
“The phrase ‘if these walls could talk’ was true of our trip to Elmwood as Grandma made the house, and people who lived there, and their memories come to life. I’m so glad the house can be preserved by the (Memorial) Hospital and that the memories can live on.”
Also of interest:
All York Town Square posts from the start.