Thursday, August 9, 2018

Isabella Beaton, "Queen Among Musicians!"

"Queen among musicians"—that's how the Rev. E. M. Vittum (1855-1938) described Isabella Beaton at her January, 1929 funeral. Dressed in one of her Parisian performance gowns—white satin with a silver spangled overdress of net—the former pianist, composer, organist, choir director, and contralto soloist lay, resplendent in her coffin. She was, the Reverend asserted, "crowned queen among musicians."
Undated photograph of Isabella Beaton (1870-1929)
The royal tribute, dutifully reported by local newspapers, brought to an end a life that had at times shone so blazingly bright as to awe her home-town admirers. Yet the road that brought Isabella Beaton to her wintry funeral had not been all glory; after an intensive and much talked-about beginning, which had included five years of study in Berlin and Paris, Beaton gradually found her energies drained by numerous quotidian duties. And although she had aspired to become the "queen" that her funeral eulogist imagined, the fierce flame that had earlier lit her career gradually dimmed, until her last several years passed in near darkness. This complicated life of musical ambition is the subject of today's post.
Isabella was the fourth child born to William (1829-1907) and Loretta Hubbard Beaton (1829-1887), newlyweds who left Ohio for the newly-founded settlement of Grinnell in 1855. Both parents were musical, and Isabella herself early showed promise of exceptional musical ability. She began playing the piano at age four, began study at the Iowa (Grinnell) Conservatory at age nine, and gave her first public concert in Grinnell's Stewart Hall when only twelve years old. However, when she graduated from the Conservatory in 1890, her musical career seemed to stall: she left Grinnell, and spent the next several years in Harlan, Iowa where she played the organ and piano, directed and sang in the choir at the local Congregational Church. No longer a prodigy, the twenty-something pianist found herself far from the centers of musical greatness, engaged in the rather ordinary career of church musician.

Then, quite suddenly her ambition received an unexpected boost: a generous bequest from her maternal grandfather allowed Isabella to leave Iowa in 1894 for Berlin where she embarked on a five-year period of intensive study: two years of piano with Emma Koch (1860-1945) and three years of piano with Morits Moszkowski (1854-1925), who, along with O. B. Boise (1844-1912), also taught her composition. Few were the small-town church organists who sped directly to one of the world's great cities, home to a lively performance scene and site of great musical innovation. When in 1897 Moszkowski left Berlin for Paris, Beaton followed, continuing her studies there. No longer young, the tall (five feet, eight inches), blue-eyed and brown-haired pianist could nevertheless hope that her European training at the feet of one of the great piano and composition teachers of the day would help vault her higher in the musical pantheon back home.
Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925), ca. 1880
When Beaton set sail for the United States in 1899, she decided that, rather than return to rural Iowa, she would settle in a city that could boast a vibrant musical culture. Her choice landed on Cleveland, where the 29-year-old took up residence with her mother's sister in the same house that her ancestors had built as pioneers. As she had hoped, press notices invariably remarked on Beaton's European sojourn. For example, an 1899 brief in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, reporting on Beaton's part in a New York concert by the Emil Pauer Orchestra, noted that "Mlle. Isabella Beaton comes from Paris by cablegram message to of her own compositions with the orchestra." The newspaper went on to claim more dubiously that, "As a pianist she ranks as the greatest student Moszkowski has ever had" (Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 9, 1899).

That autumn Beaton's name appeared in the New York Times (November 20, 1899), reporting on an Emma Nevada concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. But if the newspaper published fulsome compliments to Nevada and the Nahan Franko Orchestra that performed with her, Beaton received only passing notice: "Others who assisted in the evening's program were Miss Isabella Beaton, a finished pianist, and Miss Clara Farrington...," the Times reported.

Back in Iowa, however, Beaton's New York performance generated excitement, no matter how small Beaton's part in the concert. The Marshalltown Evening-Times Republican of November 23, 1899, for instance, nearly burst with pride in announcing that a New York critic had called Beaton "a finished pianist," adding that the Grinnell woman had "finished her musical studies by years of instruction by the best artists of Europe and deserves the appellation of 'finished pianist.'"

No doubt the New York performance proved exhilarating to Beaton herself, even if she had played but a small part in the evening. After all, rather than playing in rural Iowa where her musical career had begun, she had played in New York City, one of the world's great musical capitals! Consequently, when Beaton returned to Cleveland from New York, she continued to nourish hopes of great achievement. The road forward was not easy, however, and it began with lightly-attended concerts convened in private homes. In late December 1899, for example, she was one of several artists featured at the Cleveland home of Dr. and Mrs. A. A. La Vigne, who had invited sixty or seventy guests to join them in celebrating their first wedding anniversary. Home concerts like this were not uncommon at the time, but surely Beaton aimed for a more public venue and a much larger audience. These goals she accomplished for the first time since leaving Europe when in April 1900 she gave her first public recital in Cleveland at the Recital Hall in the Arcade.
Cleveland Plain Dealer April 17, 1900
Located in the heart of downtown Cleveland and by 1900 already ten years old, the Arcade—America's first indoor shopping mall—included a recital hall whose location and size promised Beaton plenty of attention and an audience much larger than any in-home concert could accommodate.
The Arcade, 415 Euclid, Cleveland, OH (
The Cleveland Plain Dealer (April 8, 1900) noted that the concert "is being looked forward to with much interest." As before, the newspaper could not fail to mention that Beaton had "studied abroad several years."

How many people attended the Recital Hall concert is unknown, but the brief review in the next day's newspaper was certainly encouraging. Declaring that "the entire program was of a high order and successfully performed," the reviewer thought that "the compositions which [Beaton] played gave her unusual opportunities to display her talent and training." A Bach fugue was "clearly and firmly played," and a Schumann sonata performed in a "broad style, bringing out the beauties of the exacting composition in a very musical manner." Finally, the "Air Caprice" by Beaton's mentor, Moszkowski, was played "delightfully." Although the review was brief and occupied but one small paragraph in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (April 20, 1900), Beaton's first recital in Cleveland seems to have generated a warm, if not exactly boisterous, reception.

Within ten days news of Beaton's inaugural Cleveland recital made it to Marshalltown, Iowa, where the Evening Times-Republican (April 30, 1900), borrowing from a little-known Cleveland publication, declared the Arcade concert "very well attended" and "extremely pleasing." The program, the article continued,
placed the great technical skill of the lady in the brightest possible light. Her touch is sure and at the same time musical, and her excellent training and accuracy are among her most pleasing qualities.
Nothing could have better appealed to the pianist than the conclusion, in which the reviewer confidently predicted for Beaton "a brilliant concert virtuoso as well as teacher."

Within a month Beaton's name was back in the public eye, reprising in Cleveland the Emma Nevada concert of the previous fall in New York. But it was Nevada who attracted attention, as the newspaper advertisements showed; Beaton and cellist Louis Blumenberg both executed only secondary roles. But Beaton could hardly complain; Nevada's fame brought more people to the concert where the pianist had an opportunity to impress.
Cleveland Plain Dealer May 6, 1900
As Beaton's aunt, Ruth Hubbard, noted in a May 23, 1900 letter to Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943), Ruth's niece and Isabella's cousin, critics applauded Beaton's performance:
Isabella played May 17th three numbers in the concert where Madame Emma Nevada sung [sic]. The [Wächter undAnzeiger praised her playing. The [ClevelandPlain Dealer said, "Miss Beaton, a local player, gave her selections with great skill. Her work is careful and accurate in the extreme and her technique excellent."
Whatever glory she may have garnered in this first year in Cleveland, Beaton understood that, in order to launch her performance career, she would need more than the occasional recital. Consequently, in 1900 she apparently arranged an "autumn tour" of concerts in Toledo, Bowling Green, and other Ohio cities where, according to one report, she met with "marked success" (Musical Record and Review, no. 449, February 1901). In addition, we learn that, beginning in 1899, Isabella Beaton was among the teaching staff of the Cleveland School of Music (Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 2, 1900). In late September Beaton gave her first recital to students of the school, presenting a varied program that included works by Saint Saens, Bach, Grieg, Weber, Chopin, Scarlatti, Schumann, and, as always, Moszkowski (Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 23, 1900).

With a position on the faculty at the School Beaton could count on a reliable income as well as an opportunity to offer regular piano recitals. Consequently, in January 1901 she performed again under the auspices of the school. As before, the Marshalltown newspaper (January 24, 1901) quoted a Cleveland article, claiming that a "fair-sized audience" had attended Beaton's "novel piano recital of improvisations." "Her compositions," the newspaper remarked, "were all played with a remarkable depth of feeling and expression, particularly the musical setting of Keats' 'Eve of St. Agnes' and the Berceuse."

Gratifying though these words must have been, Beaton had limited success in seeing her own compositions performed by other artists. In a 1905 letter that her father shared with the newspaper, Beaton excitedly announced that the Cincinnati orchestra had recently performed her Scherzo for orchestra, previously performed by the Emil Paur Orchestra and the Cleveland Symphony. According to the Cedar Falls Gazette (January 9, 1906),
with the exception of Mrs. Beach of Boston, Miss Beaton is the only woman in the United States whose work has been recognized and publically [sic] performed by the leading orchestras of the country. 
While performing, teaching, and composing Beaton enrolled at Western Reserve University's College for Women, from which she received a Ph.B. in 1902 and an M.A. in 1903. Whether because of these studies or for other reasons, in these years Beaton's name appears rarely in the "Music" column of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Extract from Western Reserve University Commencement Program, June 19, 1903
(Courtesy Case Western Reserve University Archives)
However, at the June 1903 end-of-year School of Music concert Beaton was once again in the public eye, playing works of Chopin, Moszkowski, and Wagner-Liszt (and sharing the program with several other pianists, vocalists, and with the St. Cecelia Choir). In late November Beaton joined a violinist, a tenor, and a soprano in concert at the Council of Educational Alliance auditorium. According to the newspaper (Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 30, 1903), the hall was packed. Nevertheless, Beaton's career as a soloist continued to bump along, difficult to distinguish from all the other musicians with whom she often appeared. Part of the reason came from her teaching, obliging Beaton sometimes to serve as second piano, accompanying students' solos.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 21, 1904
Less often Beaton had the stage to herself or shared it with only one other performer. For instance, in early May 1905 Beaton played several works of Chopin "in which she was heard to excellent advantage." A critic, remarking on Beaton's performance of pieces by Moszkowski and Liszt,  described her playing as "dashing and her style brilliant" (Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 7, 1905). But Beaton could not have failed to notice little difference from her very first Cleveland concerts when a brief paragraph filled with vague compliments sufficed to describe her artistry.

In a March 17, 1905 letter to her cousin, Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943), Beaton emphasized how hard-put she was for time, especially when her Aunt Ruth, by this time in her mid-70s, fell ill. Concern for her parents' health added to the burden.
I have not had ten spare moments since Christmas day in which to write a letter. Aunt Ruth was very ill for five weeks...I don't know what I would have done if it had not been for Ione [Abby Hill's daughter]. She took entire care of Aunt Ruth afternoons while I am [sic] at the was impossible for me to give up my position at the School just then because my mother [Beaton's birth mother had died in 1887; her father remarried twice, and the "mother" referred to here was her father's third wife, Margaretta Ella Assay Beaton (1834-1919)] has been very ill all the year and Papa was in bed threatened with pneumonia, so it was necessary for me to be the bread winner for the family [this and other letters quoted below come to me courtesy of the Abby Williams Hill Collection, Archives and Special Collections, University of Puget Sound].
Ruth and Margaretta both rallied, but Beaton found herself still busy when she wrote another letter a month later. With a string of guests expected in Cleveland, Beaton was busy cleaning the lace curtains from all fourteen windows in the house, putting "two pairs of curtains [at a time] through sixteen waters apiece." After they were pinned and dried, they all had to be re-hung, making for a large and prolonged job, which was only one part of getting the house ready for visitors.

Against this background of domestic concern and further academic study, Beaton continued to perform. In March, 1905 she played Schumann and Liszt for the Sorosis society and friends at a private home, sharing the limelight with four other artists. The following January Beaton joined several other performers before the Fortnightly Club. In February she offered another Cleveland School of Music recital in which, with the assistance of a vocalist and second pianist, she presented a long program that included two of her own compositions. In June Beaton's newly-composed Romanza for violin and organ was premiered at a School of Music concert. Meanwhile, Beaton often found herself attending lengthy student recitals, playing the second piano.
Undated cover photograph of Isabella Beaton, Musical Courier, February 28, 1906
To the delight of Beaton and her many admirers, the February 28, 1906 issue of Musical Courier featured Beaton on the cover. Within the magazine William G. Harding published several pages devoted to "Musical Cleveland and Its Artists." Beaton was one of a handful of musicians singled out for attention. Harding did not say how he had acquired all the biographical material, but the report on Beaton includes tidbits that had not been published, and must have come from Beaton herself. Despite that fact, the praise reproduced in print here appears surprisingly faint. If, for instance, Ferruccio Busoni, another pianist to whom Beaton compared herself, was "thrilling" audiences in Buffalo, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, and New York, as Musical Courier regularly reported, then
Miss Beaton was pianist with the Nevada Company at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and also in Cleveland, and has given many successful recitals in the Northern and Middle Western states.
To drive the point home, the text identifies a Beaton concert not at Boston, Chicago or New York, but at...Cedar Falls, Iowa, at the close of which "she was forced to respond to a triple encore," the magazine text immodestly bragged. So happy was the committee that had arranged her concert, the article enthused, "they doubling the fee agreed upon for the recital."

Even more revealing is the tempered lexicon of her recommenders whose testimonials, probably supplied by Beaton, also appear in the Courier's overview. Moszkowski, who, newspaper reports claimed, had named Beaton "his greatest student," could produce no more glowing praise than to admire "her artistic earnestness and enduring industry [my emphases—DK]," predicting for her "a good [my emphasis—DK] career." Boise, who had taught Beaton composition, praised her "conscientious" work and her "capacity." Like Moszkowski, Boise restrained his enthusiasm, declaring Beaton "musically and intellectually thoroughly equipped." These spare compliments, all written before Beaton returned to America, could only have come from Beaton's own files, and therefore may be understood as the best she could summon, in this way underlining how desperate she was to gain traction in her career.

In the midst of this career intermezzo Beaton's father died in 1907, bringing Isabella back to Grinnell for the funeral. Her step-mother continued to reside in the family home at 1216 Main Street, and her failing health occasioned periodic visits from Isabella over the next decade, as the Grinnell newspapers regularly noted.
Grinnell Herald, March 16, 1909
In these years Beaton also found time to enroll in additional courses at Western Reserve. But the clock was ticking, and with the arrival of 1910 Isabella Beaton, facing her 40th birthday, recognized that time was running out on her ambitions. 
Rather than continue her association with the Cleveland School of Music, in 1910 she founded her own school, naming it in memory of her father.
Cleveland Plain Dealer December 22, 1910
Locating the new organization in the home she shared with her aunt Ruth, Beaton was perhaps trying to  minimize costs and increase the convenience for herself, especially as Ruth's health went downhill. Situating the school at 7110 Kinsman—far from the center of town and the usual performance halls—Beaton might be suspected of having reined in her ambitions. The reality, however, was otherwise. Now, perhaps more than ever, Beaton worked furiously to advance her musical career.

In a January 12, 1910 letter to cousin Abby Williams Hill, Beaton wrote that she had been "working tremendously hard this winter in an effort to put the family on a secure financial basis. [I] have been sending out between two hundred and three hundred business letters every day or so...." She also began placing advertisements in some of the country's main concert venues. The 1909-1910 Boston Symphony programs, for example, included a tasteful solicitation, encouraging those interested to contact Beaton at her Kinsman Road home. An advertisement in the New York Tribune (September 24, 1910), reporting that Beaton was among the artists whom the New York agent, Marc Lagen, represented, indicates that she had signed on with a promoter in hopes of expanding her audience.
Advertisement in 1909-1910 Boston Symphony Program (
At this point, by her own report, she was practicing "from six to ten hours a day in order to make my work superior to that of [Ignacy Jan] Paderewski, [Fannie] Zeisler, [Teresa] Carreño, [Ferruccio] Busoni, and the other artists with whom I must compete in order to secure any paying concert work." 

Undated photograph of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941)    
On the flip side, however, the financial well-being of Beaton's family consumed increasing proportions of her time and energy, as she admitted in a 1910 letter to Hill: 
I am doing teaching enough to support myself and the family at home. When there is any time left it goes into sweeping, dusting, ironing and the other duties of that sort that fall inevitably upon me.
She dreamt of a time when she might "hire a secretary and a manager and...put out my laundry work and things of that kind." In the meantime, she asked Hill whether any of a long list of names she appended to the letter might be suitable contacts for her to arrange a concert in Tacoma.
Program for Jordan Hall Concert, December 27, 1910
(Courtesy of the Archives, New England Conservatory)
Apparently no concert in Tacoma ever developed, but Beaton began a bruising concert schedule. According to an article in the Grinnell College Scarlet and Black (January 26, 1911), in late 1910, thanks to the efforts of her new agent, Marc Lagen, Beaton performed in Boston's Jordan Hall with the soprano Fay McCord. "Miss Beaton's playing and especially her compositions were most highly commended by critics," the college newspaper claimed. At about the same time she began to offer locally a series of twenty concerts each year during which she performed an enormous repertoire—some three hundred works, according to her obituarist (Grinnell Herald, January 22, 1929).
Music Magazine—Music Courier 71(July 7, 1915):32
Tickets surviving from the 1914-1915 season confirm that Beaton hosted these concerts at the Kinsman Road house that she shared with her aunt Ruth.
Courtesy Grinnell Historical Museum
Sanborn insurance maps from the late nineteenth century do not identify separate rooms in the two-story house on Kinsman Road, but do reveal the building's modest footprint; no concert in this house could have accommodated a large crowd.
462 Kinsman Road, Cleveland, Ohio, 1896 Sanborn Insurance Maps (vol. 3, p. 354)
(Cleveland renumbered its streets in 1906, changing this address to 7110 Kinsman)
Nevertheless, playing twenty concerts a year for several years, Beaton must have felt proud, and no doubt these concerts earned her much admiration. But a schedule like this must also have been exhausting.

Her obituary reports that in this same period Beaton was deeply involved in a variety of war-time activities. Her linguistic skills, for instance, recommended her for selling liberty bonds to the many  immigrants in Cleveland. Beaton was also said to have been active in the "campaign against alcoholism," and evidently contemplated accepting a missionary assignment to teach music in Korea. She was a member of the National Federation of Women's Clubs, the American Association of University Women, the Music Teachers' National Association, and a life member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae.

During this furious spell of volunteering and work, Beaton's Aunt Ruth Hubbard grew more and more frail, and Beaton found herself increasingly trapped at home. Ruth lingered in illness for some years, and only died in December, 1917. In a letter to Abby Hill a few months later, Beaton reported herself "completely worn out."
I sat up with Aunt Ruth all night every night for two years and did not have time to sleep in the day time. [I] Have been down with tonsilitis [sic] for a couple of weeks and still have a bad cough.
Ruth Hubbard's demise provided Beaton with financial security that, had she received it a decade or more earlier, might have permitted her great success on stage. Ruth, no doubt recognizing all that Beaton had done for her over the years, bequeathed Isabella all her personal property as well as the house on Kinsman Road and several adjacent lots; Beaton also inherited Ruth's shares in Cleveland's Woodland Avenue Savings and Trust Company. It's unlikely that Beaton had ever been so well provided for.

However, in 1918 Beaton also observed her 48th birthday; despite the manic performance schedule she had maintained over the previous several years, her career had definitely stalled, and she was approaching 50 years of age. She had behaved honorably to her family, including especially the attention she gave to Ruth Hubbard's last years, but the gleam of her years in Berlin and Paris barely penetrated everyday reality in 1918 Cleveland.

Before Ruth died and during that period during which Ruth's long decline accelerated, Beaton prepared her own will, dated August 26, 1916. The conditions Beaton attached to this bequest are revealing of the musician's own values and behavior. Except for her books and music, which she intended to bequeath to Grinnell College and Western Reserve University, respectively, Beaton's estate was to pass intact to her niece, Ada Cora Park if she fulfilled one condition: demanding that Ada "take care of and provide for [Ada's] father and mother, Mr. Oliver W. Park and Mrs. Caroline Ruth Park [Beaton's older sister], and also of my [Beaton's] nephew, Hubbard B. Park," Beaton yoked Ada Park to the same kind of heroic family care that she herself had exercised in behalf of her parents and her aunt. She could hardly have demonstrated more clearly her own priorities.
Extract from Last Will and Testament of Isabella Beaton, August 26, 1916
After Ruth Hubbard's death in late 1917, Beaton's name appeared rarely in Cleveland newspapers. As she reported in her 1918 letter to Abby Hill, Beaton was exhausted, and may simply have recognized that at age 48 dreams of fame were no longer tenable. Despite what seems to have been an almost frenetic schedule of teaching, playing, and hospice-like care for Ruth, Beaton had not managed once to get her name in the same sentence with Paderewski, Zeisler, or Busoni. If this realization depressed her, it would be easy to understand.

Although already in 1918 Beaton was talking about selling the house she had inherited from Ruth, she seems to have remained in Cleveland until May 1922 when, according to her Grinnell Register obituary, she returned to Iowa, taking up residence on the Grinnell-area farm of Caroline and Oliver Park, her sister and brother-in-law. Oliver's obituary maintains that he went blind in 1922, and that the household—including Isabella Beaton—then moved into town at the Beaton homestead at 1216 Main. Whether Isabella came back to Iowa because of Oliver's disability or whether his blindness (caused by influenza, apparently) came after her arrival is not clear.

What is certain, however, is that, after her return to Grinnell, Beaton was not part of any local performances. Even when in 1923 the Grinnell String quartet performed one of her compositions (Scherzo from Quartet for Strings) at a November concert on campus, the newspaper did not mention if the composer was present.
Scarlet and Black, November 7, 1923
For the next several years, Beaton seems to have lived quietly; not once did her name appear on the pages of the local newspapers. Beaton gave no concerts at the Congregational Church or at the college, as she had done often in the past. Was she ill? Someone has said that she went blind, but that seems an unlikely explanation for her withdrawal; as critics noted ten years earlier, Beaton had memorized an enormous repertory and could easily have played numerous works without using her eyes. Loss of memory, on the other hand, would have made concert performances—even informal ones—impossible.

So far as I could learn, Isabella Beaton next appeared in print when on December 3, 1928 the Grinnell Register published the sad news that she had "entered the state hospital at Mt. Pleasant yesterday where she will remain for an extended treatment." What illness required treatment the newspaper did not say, but Mt. Pleasant, originally known as the Iowa Lunatic Asylum, devoted most of its attention to patients with mental illness.

January 19, 1929 Isabella Beaton, still at Mt. Pleasant, died unexpectedly. According to the death certificate, in mid-January she had contracted influenza which killed her within three days. The document pointed out that a contributory cause was "arteriosclerosis with chronic myocarditis," a condition that the physician noted had prevailed for "several yrs." Without more specifics, it is impossible to know what role arteriosclerosis—hardening of the arteries—played in Beaton's life. If her illness affected blood flow to the brain, however, Beaton might have suffered
sudden numbness or weakness in arms or legs, difficulty speaking or slurred speech, temporary loss of vision in one eye, or drooping muscles to the face. These signal a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which, if left untreated, may progress to a stroke.
Arteriosclerosis has also been associated with dementia and may contribute to Alzheimer's disease. There is no way to know whether Beaton's illness had this result, but it would make understandable how she ended up at Mt. Pleasant rather than at some other hospital or treatment facility.

Even without the details of her well-being, Beaton's last years contrast sharply with her youth and all its promise. Clearly Isabella Beaton was a very bright, very talented woman; a child prodigy, she went on to study with some of Europe's best-known teachers, so her star was certainly ascendant when she reached Cleveland in 1899. She then plunged into a career filled with teaching, composition and performance, a pace that she managed to increase a decade later when she founded her own music school and began a round of punishing recitals, each year performing some twenty concerts. Along the way she also completed a bachelor's and master's degree at Western Reserve; she vigorously volunteered in her community, assisting the war effort and the battle against alcohol. And she lovingly attended to the well-being of her family, including her Aunt Ruth whose long slide into the grave she monitored every night for two years. And then, as her own final act opened, Beaton returned to Iowa, no doubt intending to assist her sister and her husband. Instead, her own health deteriorated with the sad result of her death alone within the walls of the Mt. Pleasant State Hospital.

"Queen Among Musicians?" Perhaps not—at least not in the way that Beaton had dreamt and for which she had worked and practiced so long. Yet, as her family and friends—who had long taken pride in her musical accomplishments—could attest, Isabella Beaton, for all her commitment to composition, piano performance, and teaching, never let these occupations displace help to family members in need. Clearly Beaton had earned a coronation, if not among musicians, then surely among those who valued and practiced family loyalty and love.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Inventors and Inventions in Grinnell

Have you ever invented anything? I have not, but, as my colleagues Ann Igoe and Bill Hammen have pointed out to me, Grinnell has been home to a surprisingly large number of inventors. According to the Iowa Inventors Database, 305 separate inventions—about three-fourths of the 460 recorded in Poweshiek County—first saw the light of day here in Grinnell. Many of these inventions are fairly recent. For example, the database credits Claude Ahrens (1912-2000) with 48 patents—mostly for playground equipment—filed between 1955 and 1990.
Undated Advertisement for Randolph Header, manufactured by Craver, Steele & Austin, Grinnell, Iowa
(Image Courtesy of Grinnell Historical Museum)
But long before Claude Ahrens invented the Miracle Whirl Merry-go-round, Grinnellians were imagining new devices to simplify work, improve safety, and make life more enjoyable. In this post we examine three of the earliest Grinnell inventors and their inventions, tracking their impact upon this small town on the prairie.
Grinnell was little more than a spot on an Iowa map when William Beaton (1829-1907) filed his first patents. Born in Canada in 1829, Beaton arrived in Grinnell in 1855, only a week after his June 21 Cleveland, Ohio wedding to Loretta Hubbard. The 1860 census caught him in Grinnell where at age 31 he was working as an "instructor"—presumably in voice, which he taught privately for a time. He and his wife Loretta were named with two children—Caroline (2 yrs) and William (3 months old); ten years later the Beatons, who lost William as an infant, added another child, then only one month old and still unnamed (but later known as Henry). By the time census officials appeared in 1880 Grinnell, Beaton and Loretta were both 50 years old; Caroline was married and gone, while Henry had died before reaching his sixth birthday. Daughter Isabella, however, was 10 years old, and attended local school. An expert pianist and possessor of an admired contralto voice, Isabella went on to a successful career as composer and performer before her 1929 death.
Undated photograph of William Beaton (ca. 1900)
His daughter's musical success was no accident, for, although William Beaton's obituary says nothing about his inventions, it emphasizes the man's musical vocation. Said to have been in possession of a "tenor voice of rare timber and quality," Beaton directed the Grinnell Congregational Church choir, organized and directed the first Grinnell civic orchestra, and was also organizer and member of a vocal quartet. The first principal of Grinnell's public school, he was also a Civil War volunteer in the 4th Iowa Infantry.
Photograph of Beaton Home at 1227 Broad (ca. 1890; razed in 1934)
When first recalled in the 1878 city directory, the Beatons were living at First and Park. But by 1895 the family occupied a spacious Italianate home at 1227 Broad. William lived here into the new century, but by 1905 he and his wife had moved into a much smaller home at 1216 Main, and it was here that William died.  

A man "known for the sterling uprightness and perfect purity of his character," Beaton had also been a cabinet-maker and spent most of his life as a piano tuner. This background helped prepare him to become an inventor. The Iowa Inventors Database credits Beaton with three of the earliest patents registered in Grinnell: a churn (patent no. 44,505; 1864); a device for measuring cloth in the piece or roll (no. 45,131; 1864); and a washing machine (no. 48,894; 1865).

Beaton's idea of a churn was one of 42 for which patents were sought in 1864, but this device, once imagined, did not exhaust the man's ingenuity. That same year he filed a patent which had less immediate competition—a device to measure cloth, an invention that he intended for the country's dry goods stores.
Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1864, Volume 2 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1866), pp. 919-20.
His third invention—a washing machine—might be thought to have had more impact. When all clothes-washing required lots of muscle and benefitted from little mechanical help, any improvement on the basic wash tub attracted attention. Beaton's description of his invention (regrettably not accompanied by a drawing) makes it difficult to see exactly how the machine might have worked. Apparently the spring was intended to assist in a process that remained fundamentally manual, which may explain why no great rush to manufacture such a machine presented itself.
Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1865, Volume 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1867), p. 552.
So far as I know, none of these patents found a willing manufacturer, and Beaton seems not to have attempted any more patents in his later years. Perhaps his private life, which was riddled with family deaths, sucked away the inventiveness that had driven his earlier inventions. In addition to the deaths of two young children (mentioned above), Beaton also had to endure the deaths of two wives—first wife, Loretta, in 1887 and second wife, Maggie Tichnor, in 1893. His third wife, the former Margaretta Ella Asay, survived Beaton, who died January 16, 1907, taking his place in Hazelwood beside his deceased wives and children. His inventions, too, withered, unattended.
Another inventor lived alongside William Beaton in nineteenth-century Grinnell: Charles Francis Craver (1842-1925). Unlike the piano-tuner, however, Craver met with great success with his inventions, at least for a time.
Charles Francis Craver (1842-1925) as Young Man
Craver was born in Franklinville, New Jersey in 1842, but by 1860 was living with his farmer father in Sugar Creek Township. In 1861 he volunteered for the 4th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry. Promoted several times during the war, he was one of a small group of soldiers who surrounded Jefferson Davis and his cabinet in Atlanta in 1865. The following year Beaton married Angeline (sometimes Angelena) Hambleton, and the couple settled in Grinnell where they welcomed two sons—Arthur (b. 1870) and Frank (b. 1878). Cravers were living in a house at the southeast corner of Seventh and Broad when the 1882 Cyclone blew away their home. Mrs. Craver and the children were out of town, and therefore escaped harm; Charles and the housekeeper took shelter in the basement and survived without injury. The house, however, was a complete loss.
House of Mr. & Mrs. Charles Craver after the 1882 Cyclone
Although Craver served one term in the Iowa State House of Representatives, he is best remembered for his part in the firm known as Craver, Steele and Austin. Founded in 1871, the new company produced farm implements, including various rakes, the Steele Mower, and the Clement windmill. But the center of their success was an early horse-driven harvester known as the Randolph Header.
Undated photograph of Walter F. Randolph (1833-1903)
The original patent belonged to Walter F. Randolph (1833-1903), who in 1874 filed patent number 155, 256 for an "Improvement in Harvesters." Renewed in 1880, Randolph's patent aimed to raise seed heads before cutting and then deliver the grain onto a series of endless "aprons," moving the grain along and up.
Exactly how or when Craver adapted this scheme is not clear, but we know from his follow-up patent that he managed to build Randolph's plan onto a wheeled, horse-driven apparatus that became the Randolph Header. US Patent number 347,692 (filed November 10, 1885) described a "Harvesting-Machine" that would make history.
Drawing for Harvesting Machine (Official Gazette of United States Patent Office, v. 36[1886]:799)
The cutting surface could be adjusted so that it cut just below the seed head, leaving stalks behind. The grain then fell onto a belt with small paddles that ferried the seed heads along, depositing them within an elevator box from which another belt lifted the grain up toward an adjacent wagon. The Header, in tandem with a rolling wagon alongside, could harvest 40 acres a day using just three men—one operating the Header, one driving the wagon, and one spreading the grain as it accumulated in the wagon. Small farms could not easily benefit from the Header, but large farms in the Midwest and abroad could, and business quickly expanded.
Perhaps the only extant Randolph Header in the world, now owned by Grinnell Historical Museum (2017 photo)
Although initially Craver manufactured the Headers as a sideline, they soon became the center of business. With markets in Canada, Russia, Argentina and Australia, business flourished in the 1880s. At the firm's peak in 1888 some 230 employees were at work in the company's factory on 4th Avenue. Workers loaded five or six railroad cars every day; altogether some 10,000 Randolph Headers were manufactured before business collapsed.

The end began with passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887, after which Craver lost the preferential railroad rates he used to ship machines from Grinnell. In order to minimize the loss, Craver decided to move his entire operation to Harvey, Illinois, leaving Grinnell in 1890. Soon, however, the collapse of harvests in the early 1890s put Craver's business into tight circumstances, with the result that he sold the entire operation in 1895 for his debts.
Notice of sale of Craver & Steele (Iron Age, vol 56[1895]:641)
The 1900 US Census found Craver, 57 years old, living in Harvey, along with his wife, two sons, his mother-in-law, Philena, and sister-in-law, Loretta. Charles identified himself as a manufacturer, but clearly things were not going well. By the time of the next census, Charles and Angeline were living with their son Arthur in his home in St. Joseph, MO. Arthur, married and father of a little girl, served as an officer in a local bank, while father Charles, 67 years old, had found a new vocation, working as foreman in an oil plant. The 1920 US Census found Charles and Angeline in Tulsa, OK, drawn there by Charles's work in oil, the Randolph Header now long forgotten. The end, however, was near. Angeline died in 1922, and Charles Craver died a little more than two years later; he and his wife are buried in Tulsa, the city in which they spent their last years. Grinnell and the Header were mere memories in a life lived hard and fast.
Some twenty-five years after Charles Craver abandoned Grinnell, Edwin R. Talley (1860-1932) arrived in town. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Talley married Iowan Harriet La More in 1898, and they became parents to two daughters and two sons. Having previously lived in Algona and Hampton, around 1913 the Talley family reached Grinnell, taking up residence at 733 East Street. Regularly declaring on census forms that he was an optometrist (his Grinnell business address was at 831 1/2 Main Street), Talley seems to have thought of himself primarily as an inventor. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his inventing success is that Talley could neither read nor write—at least that is what he consistently reported to census officials.
Undated Photograph of Edwin R. Talley (Grinnell Herald, March 23, 1917)
While still living in Algona, Talley had registered three different patents: a beet topper (patent no. 1,124,072); a nut lock (no. 1,159,618); and bifocal lens (no. 1,136,060). This last invention he brought with him to Grinnell where, with the assistance of two Grinnell men, he tried to organize a manufacturing facility for bifocals.
Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, January 12, 1917
For reasons that remain unclear, Grinnell Lens Manufacturing seems to have failed promptly. None of this undermined Talley's busy mind, however. The Iowa Inventors Database reports that Talley filed patents for at least three more inventions during this stay in Grinnell: artificial rubber (no. 1,285,463); a massage apparatus (no. 1,212,845); and a device for purifying water (no. 1,217,365).
Sketch attached to E. R. Talley's Patent for Water-Purifying Device (no. 1,217,365)
Talley's rubber substitute drew attention from the press at least as early as 1913, when the Marshalltown Times-Republican (January 16) reported on it. According to the newspaper, Talley had recently produced sixty pounds of his substitute at the Armour Institute in Chicago. In another demonstration at Iowa State University in Ames, Talley's "rubber" was tested with heat, and began to melt at 530 degrees, whereas rubber itself began to melt at only 270 degrees. Allegedly much cheaper to produce than rubber, Talley's substitute should have attracted commercial interest, but apparently it did not. Six years after the Marshalltown report, Talley's artificial rubber was still commanding nothing more than newspaper praise. But a 1929 article in the Greene Recorder (March 13) announced that Talley had sold his substitute-rubber patent to a group of investors for $25,000, which was no mean sum in 1929.
Scarlet and Black, January 29, 1919
Given the hard water that Grinnell wells produced, Talley's water softener seemed guaranteed to please locals. But the Grinnell Herald observed that interest was likely to reach much further: the invention seems "destined to find a place in almost every home in the entire country, as it not only softens the water, but...eliminates all danger of...typhoid and other virulent forms of disease" (March 23, 1917). The newspaper reported that Grinnell College professors Harry F. Lewis and George O. Oberhelman had tested the device in a college laboratory, and announced that Talley's machine had reduced "hardness" in Grinnell's water by three-quarters. The report included precise counts for calcium and magnesium, in both cases considerably less than in untreated Grinnell water. Another news article explained the machine's operation:
The water is forced under pressure into a large tank in one end of which are two revolving paddles which rotate at a high speed. In the same tank is a large carbon electrode. By the electric current and the violent motion of the water, the water is broken up. It then passes into a large settling tank from which it comes with the solid removed (Quad City Times, March 19, 1917).
Even as he gathered plaudits for his water softener, Talley was at work on an "iceless refrigerator." According to a notice in the Grinnell Register (April 12, 1917), the machine "consists of a fan enclosed in a metal casing and operated from the outside by a motor." Refrigeration was accomplished by means of compressed air; a thermostat inside the refrigerator regulated the motor, either demanding that the fan operate or, when the desired temperature is achieved, shut down.
Grinnell Register, April 12, 1917
Talley's name is also attached to patents for a "life-protecting body-guard" (no. 1,290,799) and a telephone recorder (no. 1,131,439), among other inventions. Like Charles Craver, however, Talley did not live out his days in Grinnell. The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette of October 1, 1920 reported that among the newcomers to town was Edwin R. Talley, who settled in at 1924 B Avenue. As he had in Grinnell, Talley attracted the attention of the local press. The Cedar Rapids Republican (April 18, 1926) introduced the "versatile" Talley to Cedar Rapids readers, remarking on the man's "fertile brain" and the sixty-seven inventions he now laid claim to. Describing yet another invention, the newspaper reported on "an electric device to prevent the stealing of automobiles." According to the newspaper, "when a bandit steps on the starter, the sound of a siren will ring through the streets for six blocks." If the siren did not dissuade the thief, "a constant chain of electricity will run through his hands as he grasps the steering wheel." In the interview, Talley also enthused about other inventions: an automobile that ran on compressed air; imitation leather; the "Economy steam generator," a railroad signal said to be able to stop any train, coming or going; and "automobile head lights that turn as the car turns, always keeping the light in front of the car."

Talley's inventive brain reached its end  February 18, 1932 when cardiac failure and pulmonary edema cut short the life of Edwin Talley. He died in University Hospitals, Iowa City, and was later buried in Cedar Rapids. Back in Grinnell, which Talley had left only twelve years earlier, no one seems to have taken notice.
In this post we have barely scratched the surface of Grinnell's inventors and their inventions. We might have examined John Berg who in the 1880s patented a series of fire extinguishers. We might also have looked at George W. Lewis (1861-1951) whose several inventions contributed to the prosperity of Grinnell Washing Machine Company. Clearly there were many more inventions in Grinnell than the few considered here. These three men, however, remind us that, in the first place, invention was present in the earliest days of J. B. Grinnell's town. Men like William Beaton practiced vocations well-known to their fellow townsmen, but in their spare time they tinkered with machines about whose future they dreamt. And if their inventions did not immediately lead to fame or fortune, these inventors continued to practice their professions so that, at death, they could still be remembered, if not for their inventiveness.
Grinnell Washing Machine Factory (ca. 1920) (Digital Grinnell)
By contrast, Charles Craver's part in Grinnell's past is written in bold. With his adoption and adaptation of Randolph's harvesting machine, Craver created a tool which almost immediately attracted a brisk business, not only in the American Midwest but also on distant foreign farms. For a little over a decade Craver could savor his success, nourished by the creativity he brought to solving an important agricultural problem. Grinnell could hardly miss this success when so many locals were at work in Craver's factory. And then even more suddenly than the firm's prosperity had risen, Craver, Austin and Steele abandoned Grinnell, leaving behind the factory buildings into which Spaulding Manufacturing would soon come. Nevertheless, when Craver died in distant Oklahoma in 1925, thirty-five years after he deserted Grinnell, the Grinnell Herald printed a lengthy obituary. Craver's invention had mattered to Grinnell, and therefore he was not forgotten.

Edwin Talley constitutes still a third case, inventions springing from his brain before and after his Grinnell sojourn. Even more than William Beaton, Talley invented a wide array of devices—one to purify water, another to cool foodstuffs, a third to safeguard automobiles, and a fourth to harvest beets. By his own count, Talley created 67 different inventions. Like Beaton, however, Talley was an avocational inventor, practicing optometry during the work day. Also like Beaton was the fact that most of Talley's creations died on the vine, never to generate that flow of cash and economic well-being that Charles Craver enjoyed with the Header. And so, despite the occasional Grinnell newspaper article, Talley left town almost unnoticed, and when he died in 1932, just up the road in Iowa City, no one here thought to report the news of his death to the folk in Grinnell.