Important discoveries don’t always come down the main highway. Such is the case with the discovery of the story of three generations of Racine women: Amy Davis Winship, Elizabeth Davis Wooster, and Marguerite Davis. Their story, and their connection to the current of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century reform movements emerged out of research into the scrapbook and papers detailing the family history of Col. William Utley. It is, in fact, to the Marguerite Davis estate that the Racine Heritage Museum owes a significant portion of the Utley collection.
Amy Davis Winship was born in 1831, a descendent of English immigrants who, over the course of several generations worked their way in a familiar pattern westward from New Hampshire to Vermont, New York, Ohio, finally to Stephenson Co.., Illinois. In 1847, at age 16, Amy began teaching in the same log schoolhouse from which she had just graduated. Two years later she married John Davis. The young couple befriended and became close friends of their neighbor John Addams, best known to history as the father of Jane Addams. Amy Davis had four children, the aforementioned Elizabeth her only daughter. Two of her sons died in infancy or childhood. In a published memoir Amy would later write that it was the experience of motherhood, including the loss of two of her own children, that drove home to her the cruelty of slavery, with its separation of children from mothers. She joined the abolition movement. Her husband’s burgeoning political career took the couple to Springfield IL, where he served in the Illinois State Legislature alongside Abraham Lincoln. Amy and John became friends with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Amy Davis attended five of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. Still unable to vote, of course, Amy Davis nevertheless supported the new Republican Party, and would later write that in addition to being a Republican and an abolitionist she also considered herself a socialist!
With the outbreak of the Civil War John Davis helped to raise regiments from Illinois, and felt compelled to join those young men in the fight for the Union and against slavery. He was killed in battle in October of 1862. Amy Davis subsequently moved to Racine, where she had friends. In 1871 she married Eugene Winship. It was in Racine, and with her children grown, that Amy Davis was able to give full attention to her social and political interests. She threw herself into temperance work, collaborating with other civic-minded women to establish alternatives to the saloons for young single working men, sometimes hosting evenings of coffee drinking, board game playing, and conversation in her own home if rented facilities were not available. She became friends with Frances Willard, the leader of the WCTU, and hosted Willard on more than one occasion in her home at 73 Eighth Street.
It was Amy Winship’s interest in temperance that brought her to the suffrage movement, realizing that women needed the vote if they were to be able to effect social change. Amy had already met Lucy Stone; and that connection, as well as her growing suffrage work, brought her into contact with Susan B. Anthony, whom she came to count as an “intimate friend.” Anthony visited Amy Winship in Racine while on a speaking tour of the Midwest, and stayed at the Winship home on Eighth Street. Indeed this house, at 73 Eighth Street, perched on the bluff above Lake Michigan, assumes nearly the role of a fourth character in this story!
One of the bonds between Amy Winship and Susan B. Anthony was the Universalist Church. Anthony had significant ties to that liberal denomination, which was itself at the nexus of the rich mix of 19th century reform movements in the United States. Amy had first encountered Universalism on an early visit to Racine, during her first marriage. Just as Polly, Col. Utley’s mother, found herself unable to accept some of the tenets of Calvinism, Amy had long experienced profound misgivings about own her Methodist upbringing.
The visit to the Racine Universalist Church changed her life. She later wrote: “The first liberal sermon I ever heard from a pulpit . . . so fitted in with the religious philosophy I had worked out through the years that I was overcome with joyous emotion at the expression of that about which I had been inarticulate.” It was the connection to the Universalist Church in Racine that drew Amy Winship into another important friendship, with Olympia Brown, who made her home for a time at the Winship house at 73 Eighth Street. Amy Winship wrote: “There sprang up between us a friendship that has ripened and strengthened with the years, and shed a blessed influence on all my life.” Olympia Brown’s growing commitment to the suffrage cause – in pursuit of which she would later resign the pulpit at the church in order to devote herself full time to that work – served to further deepen the connection of both women with Susan B. Anthony.
In later years Eugene Winship’s failing health would take the couple west and south in search of a better climate. Following Mr. Winship’s death in 1906, Amy embarked on a third phase of life. She wrote in her memoir:
Fifty years of my life have been blessed with the comradeship of two good men. With the one I spent the years of my youth and won the sacred benediction of motherhood; with the other, the years of mature life, from which there flowed a beneficent self-expression. The cycle of married life closed. I now became a citizen of the world.
Thus it was at age 70 that Amy Winship enrolled for the first time in college, at Ohio State University, becoming what we would today call a “non-traditional student.” And like so many of those students, Amy Winship brought her “real life experience” to the classroom. She recalled in her memoir the occasion where a history class in which she was enrolled was discussing the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. She volunteered the fact that she had been in attendance at five of these, so the professor asked her to come up and tell the class all about this. She proudly reported that the professor told her later that everything she recalled, even some of the nuances of the debate, conformed to the scholarly record and analysis of the debates. Winship spent four semesters at Ohio State. Subsequently much of the remainder of her life would be spent traveling, visiting friends made over the course of her life, and enrolling a semester here, a year there, in various colleges and universities. These eventually included Johns Hopkins (during which time she lived with Olympia Brown), Harvard, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Illinois, and the University of Southern California. During a visit to Nashville, Amy Winship learned of the mission of Fisk University as one of the historically black colleges and universities. She toured the campus, and at her death at age 92 in 1920, she left a significant legacy to that institution.
One last event brought Amy Davis Winship into contact with the reform movements and leaders of the era. As a memorial to her first husband, she gave money to the Abraham Lincoln Center on the south side of Chicago. Established as an extension of the local Universalist Church and as a settlement house, and built according to a design by Frank Lloyd Wright, Amy Winship’s donation served to furnish a guest room dedicated to the memory of John Davis. The dedication ceremony took place in May 1907. Jane Addams, whose father had long ago been the neighbor of the young John and Amy Davis, spoke at the dedication ceremony.
By the time of Amy Winship’s death in 1920 at her old home on Eighth Street, ownership of the house had passed to her daughter Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s husband, Park Wooster. Mr. Wooster, a prominent local businessman, was the stepson of Racine’s Civil War hero Col. Utley, a man with impeccable reform and abolitionist credentials in his own right. Elizabeth, Amy’s daughter, had as a young girl upset Susan B. Anthony by bringing a litter of kittens in her apron to show to Anthony when the latter was a guest at the house on Eighth Street. As Amy recalled: “Susan abhorred cats. ‘Oh, take them away! Take them away!’ My daughter could never forgive her for that.”
Despite that episode, Elizabeth went on to become a committed suffragist and civic activist. She enjoyed an advantage that her mother at that age had not: a formal education. Following graduation from a “school of oratory” in Boston, Elizabeth taught elocution and public speaking for four years at Downer College in Milwaukee. Following her marriage she was known as club woman, civic activist, and an “ardent supporter of progressive reforms.” Elizabeth Wooster was a charter member of the Women’s Club of Racine, founded in 1896. When the club split over the cause of women’s suffrage, Elizabeth Wooster joined with the suffrage group, but retained membership in the more traditional group as well. She would later recall: “One club talked itself successfully out of business. The other . . . .” That latter organization, which only recently disbanded, spearheaded such movements as the building of a public library, pushing for kindergartens and music programs in the public schools, and for clean and well-lit streets. Both Mr. and Mrs. Wooster were members of the Universalist Church, and maintained the friendship first with Olympia Brown and then with Brown’s daughter Gwendolynn Willis.
Following the death of Elizabeth Davis Wooster in 1938, and that of her husband two year later, ownership of the house passed to the two grandchildren of Amy Davis Winship, children of Amy’s only surviving son Dr. John Davis. It is Dr. Davis’s daughter Marguerite who is the third of the women we hear of tonight. It takes away nothing from her pioneering role as a scientist to note that, even in the first decades of the twentieth century she enjoyed advantages unavailable to her grandmother and to some extent even her aunt in the realm of education. Marguerite Davis attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where her father taught botany; the University of Chicago, and earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1910 at the University of California. She returned to the University of Wisconsin and pursued graduate studies, although she never completed the master’s program. She worked briefly for the Squibbs Pharmaceutical Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but returned again to Wisconsin. In the ensuing years she worked as an assistant to UW biochemist Elmer Verner McCollum in the field of vitamins and nutrition. Their work, known in the histories of science as the McCollom-Davis Studies in Nutrition — led to the identification Vitamin A and Vitamin B. Marguerite Davis went on to found the nutrition laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, and subsequently organized a similar lab at Rutgers University. Upon her retirement in 1940 she returned to Racine, to the house at 73 Eighth Street, which she shared with her brother John Archibald “Archie” Davis until his death in 1955. She continued to serve as a chemistry consultant for many years. Like her grandmother Amy and her Aunt Elizabeth before her, she was active in Racine civic affairs and pursued other interests, including history and gardening. In 1958 Racine’s Women’s Civic Council recognized Davis for her contributions as a civic leader. In 1956 the Racine Journal Times wrote a profile of the house – noting the many famous visitors who had enjoyed its hospitality. Marguerite Davis died in Racine on September 19, 1967, three days after her eightieth birthday. Sadly, the house was torn down in 1971, three years after her death; it is today the site of the parking lot south of the downtown YMCA.
Taken together, the story of the Utley family and the Winship-Davis women provide a fascinating glimpse into the close-knit society of late nineteenth/early twentieth century Racine, and to the rich reform tradition that is part of our history.