Leonard Matthews - 1912
At Long Last - Leonard
Quiet, modest grandmother would never have written an autobiography, but when her aggressive outgoing husband was 91 he did — Leonard Matthews - a Long Life in Review. It was printed only for the family and close friends, some 200 copies, I think. My copy is inscribed to me in April 1929, when he was 100 and I was 14.
As a child I remember a very old man of whom I was rather afraid. He wore grubby clothes all rooming and spent his time out of doors (weather permitting) — working in his rock garden, around the lily pond, or in the asparagus bed. After a nap in his chair in the afternoon he changed into a black suit and dark tie worn with a wing collar. Before dinner, Miss Ozorio, the housekeeper, would read the paper to him, and each night of the week one of his sons or daughters and family would come in for dinner, served formally by Emma & Leta, the German maids. Aunt Mary Morton came on Monday, Uncle Claude Matthews on Tuesday, Uncle Percy Werner on Wednesday, etc. One winter I was part of this routine since I lived with him at the old house on Cabanne in order to have my teeth straightened. There was no orthodontist in Rolla where we were then living.
Unfortunately my actual memories of grandfather stop here. At 97 he was very deaf and at 11 I was very shy, and inept at thinking of conversational tidbits to shout at him. I remember almost every detail about the house, however. The copy of Guido Reni’s Aurora over the dining room mantel, the gas lights still in use in the back part of the house, the curio cabinet behind the Morris chair in the parlor—filled with treasures from the travels of all the members of the family. My special favorite was a Chinese ivory puzzle ball with 8 progressively smaller balls inside of it—all carved.
It was only after grandfather's death that I read his book and regretted that I could never ask him the questions I might have asked earlier. He was born in Baltimore in 1828. As he writes in his Preface, Louis XIV was to blame. If he hadn't revoked the Edict of Nantes and forced the Huguenots to flee France, grandfather's ancestors on both sides wouldn't have emigrated to the New World—and I wouldn't be here.
In 1838, at the age of 10, grandfather was sent alone from Baltimore to St. Francisville, Missouri on the Des Moines River where two uncles had established a general store. He stayed a year and returned to Baltimore to report on the good life on the frontier. A year later, the whole family, including 9 children, moved west. In 1848 grandfather was 20. He had spent the intervening years helping on a farm his father had bought near Hannibal and studying a little medicine. The news from Sutter’s mill in California was enough to send him off with other young adventurers in search of gold. He found some — 25 hundred dollars worth from a streambed, which quickly grew to $25,000 through several business ventures including a loan to a shipping company at 5% per month — the going rate in San Francisco at the time. It also vanished rather quickly when the company ran into difficulties. Leonard returned to Missouri by way of Panama and New York with less than a thousand dollars for his share of the gold rush.
The wholesale drug business with two brothers in St. Louis came next. Seidlitz Powders, Cooks pills, Turlington Balsam, hair oils and cologne sold well — as did a rival's offering — Mexican Volcanic Oil Liniment — which was actually crude petroleum touted as oil from the burning mountains of Mexico. War came in 1861, splitting the states, and incidentally, the Matthews brothers, half of whom had moved down river to New Orleans. The business was flourishing and medicines were in such demand that grandfather paid a substitute to go to war in his place. He also married Mary Spotswood Nisbet that year.
By 1865 two daughters had been born and the strain of maintaining the business during the war years had slackened. Grandfather's feet were itchy again and he and grandmother decided to go abroad, leaving the children with his parents. Going abroad was no easy matter in those days, but nothing really daunted grandfather and they managed a years travel. It took them through Egypt, Arabia, what was then known as the Holy Land, Turkey, Greece and the rest of Europe. I've spoken of my grandfather as dauntless; my grandmother must have been equally so. They arrived home in November of 1866 and their third daughter was born the following January.
At 38, grandfather felt he had made as much money as he needed and was ready to retire to the life of a gentleman farmer in the country — to Kirkwood/Oakland, in fact. The drug business was sold to Meyer Brothers, but after 3 years he was restless again. Soon he was back in business, founding the first brokerage house in St. Louis with a cousin by marriage, General A. G. Edwards. By 1878 five more children, including my mother, had been born, and the whole family was ready to move back to the city — to a house on Grand Avenue, near Mary Institute for the girls and Smith Academy for the boys.
The rest of Leonard's life can be summed up very quickly, despite the fact that it was extremely busy. He took an active part in the affairs of St. Louis, but always found time for travel and his beloved garden. One of his activities which is especially interesting to me now was his work as an early trustee of Shaws Garden.
We can leave him here, looking forward happily to a golden wedding celebration in 1911, and somewhat dubiously to my mother's marriage a month later. To tie up the loose threads let's consider that marriage. You may remember that we left the potential groom at 15 in 1880, having a rather miserable time of it, with very little formal education, moving from one menial office job to another. In the intervening years he went to New Mexico to be a cowboy, sold jewelry in Indiana, somehow became a major in Puerto Rico in the Spanish American War, and read enough law to pass bar exams to become a lawyer.
Considering this rather checkered career it's easy to understand why solid citizen Leonard Matthews looked with no favor at all on the British ne'er do well who was courting his youngest daughter. He kept them apart for 10 long years— but finally, when my father was 46 and my mother 36 they married — and everybody lived happily ever after — I guess.