Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Lillian Johnson Gilliland's Memories of Thomas Edison and 19th Century Life in Pelham Manor

Lillian M. Johnson Gilliland was the wife of famed inventor Ezra Torrence Gilliland.  She lived in Pelham for nearly fifty years.  She and her husband arrived in about 1891 or 1892 and built a house and an adjacent laboratory building near the intersection of Wolfs Lane and Secor Avenue (now known as Secor Lane).  I have written about Lillian Gilliland and her husband, Ezra Gilliland, before.  See, e.g.:

Tue., Aug. 4, 2015:  Ezra T. Gilliland, The Inventor of the Telephone Switchboard and Friend of Thomas Edison, Was a Pelham Manor Resident.

Fri., Feb. 13, 2015:  A Magical Valentine's Day in Pelham Manor in 1895.

Although Ezra Gilliland died on May 13, 1903, Lillian Gilliland remained in Pelham for nearly the next four decades.  In 1938 she gave a lengthy interview to a reporter from The Pelham Sun.  She provided her recollections of her husband's extensive involvement with Thomas Edison in the 1870s and 1880s.  She also recalled her and her husband's early days in Pelham Manor, shortly after the Village of Pelham Manor was created in 1891.  The resultant article provides a quaint snapshot of a simpler llife in Peham Manor more than 120 years ago.  The text of the article is transcribed below, followed by a citation to its source. 

Mrs. Ezra T. Gilliland in 1938.
Sep. 9, 1938, p. 3, cols. 1-5.
NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

Good Times Began At Home and Stayed There In The Old Days In The Manor
Mrs. Ezra T. Gilliland Who Will Celebrate 80th Birthday in December Recalls Neighborhood Character of Social Life in Pelham Manor in the Early Days of the Village.

‘We were just like one big family then,’ Mrs. Ezra T. Gilliland long-time resident of Pelham Manor told a Pelham Sun reporter when questioned at her home on Boston Post Road, about life in the old days of the village. 

Speaking of the old days on Secor Hill, Mrs. Gilliland who will celebrate her 80th birthday on next December 13th, recalls with relish and a slight nostalgic sorrow the joys of other days; days filled to overflowing with gaiety and movement, joys in which many neighbors shared, both summer and winter, joys in which the home was often both the beginning and the end.

Mrs. Gilliland, who is small and dainty, with the quick neat grace of a bird, has weathered many changes in Pelham Manor since the days very early in the 90’s when she and her husband came from New York to make their home here.  Her husband, who died in 1903 was widely known as a successful inventor.  He was at one time associated with the American Bell Telephone Company and with the late Thomas Alvah Edison.  Much of the apparatus designed by the late Mr. Gilliland is now in the Smithsonian Institute.  He served as president of the Village of Pelham Manor and was an active and leading figure in the early days of the community.  He was also president of the old Manor Club.

‘We hunted around in Connecticut and had almost decided on Davenport Neck in New Rochelle when we finally determined to come to Pelham Manor,’ Mrs. Gilliland recalled.  The branch line of the New Haven railroad then active made commuting  a simple enough proposition.  About 1892 she and her husband built a home on Wolf’s Lane, the house now occupied by the Ely family.  Mr Gilliland soon built a laboratory for his experimental work right next door.

Mrs. Gilliland recalls the none too frequent houses that then stood in this section of the Manor known as Secor Hill, among them the old Secor house, now the residence of Mrs. Julius Manger and also the home of Mr. James Secor on Boston Post Road at Ely avenue.  The playwright, Joseph Arthur, author of ‘Blue Jeans,’ came to the Manor to live through friendship with the Gillilands.  The Geise family then resided in what is now the residence of Mrs. John Clyde Oswald. 

The reporter walking up the Boston Post Road to Mrs. Gilliland’s residence speculated on the changes that have taken place along the historic highway.  The sweet smell of newly cut grass spoke of the country but was rudely obliterated the second after by the nauseating fumes from the exhaust of a passing truck.  The highways tell the story, thought the reporter. 

Mrs. Danforth Brown who for 17 years served as manager of the Manor Club starting at the time when it became a women’s club in 1914, makes her home with Mrs. Gilliland her sister in Pelham Manor.  She told with humorous appreciation of a day long ago when she remembers Mr. Gilliland calling to his wife ‘Come to the window, here comes an automobile.’  An automobile, if you please, and on the Boston Post Road of all places!  On another occasion, both Mrs. Gilliland and Mrs. Brown recall Mr. Gilliland rushing out of the house, armed with whiskey to help resuscitate a wretched horse that had been overcome as he toiled up the hill on the Post Road on a terrifically hot summer day.

Speaking of the Boston Post road and traffic, Mrs. Gilliland related with glee that when there was some talk of extending the New Rochelle Trolley up the Post Road to connect with the New York line, the old residents on Secor Hill strenuously objected on the grounds of too much noise.

The Gilliland family were long friends of the late Thomas A. Edison and in fact, it was at their summer home in Winthrop, Mass., that Mr. Edison met Mina Miller who was to become the second Mrs. Edison.  A pleasant interlude came into their life when they spent about a year abroad while Mr. Gilliland was busy installing a factory in Antwerp.  Mrs. Gilliland had an interesting experience at that time while traveling in Italy when she went to use a telephone and saw staring her in the face the words ‘Gilliland Patent.’  The old-fashioned bell for ringing the operator was devised by Mr. Gilliland.

Way back in 1885 when Mrs. Brown, then a Miss Johnson and a student at the Conservatory of Music in Boston, recalls demonstrating the first wax records made for the old-fashioned phonographs at the Boston Exposition.  Mrs. Brown to the great interest of many visitors at the Exposition, sang a song and a record was made so that her voice could be heard again through the medium of the talking machine.  She recalls the crowds but fails to remember the title of the sond.  Mr. Gilliland collaborated with Mr. Edison on the phonography invention.

Returning to memories of old Pelham Manor, Mrs. Gilliland volunteered casually the startling information ‘We used to play golf here on the corner, at the intersection of Highland avenue and Boston Post Road, on a small neighborhood course.’  She recalled too annual summer clambakes she and her husband used to have on their lawn, with preparations for days beforehand and the chef from the New York Athletic Club presiding. 

‘There was no depression then, no President Roosevelt,’ Mrs. Brown interpolated with a sigh for the good old days.

‘We made our own pleasures at home,’ Mrs. Gilliland said.  Young people, she added, know nothing of those ‘primitive days.’  There were no movies, no ubiquitous automobiles.  People were dependent on themselves and on their neighbors to make their own good times.

Mrs. Gilliland remembers bicycle parties of about eight persons who would pedal along Split Rock Road down to the Clairmont Inn on Riverside Drive where dinner had already been ordered.  After dining the party would bicycle over to the Grand Central Station and stow their bikes in the baggage car, returning home by the ‘main line.’

The Winter with its snows and ice brought gay sleighing parties, merry with bells on the frosty air.  After gay rides the parties would often wind up at the New York Athletic Club.  Mr. Gilliland would have the tennis court flooded for skating, providing fun for the entire neighborhood. 

Music too, played an important part in the social life of those more leisurely days of the 90’s and early 1900’s.  Both Mr. and Mrs. Gilliland were actively fond of music and it was as their guest that the Italian tenor, Campanini came to Pelham Manor and sang at the old Manor Club, his last appearance in this country.  The noted tenor was accustomed to drink a pint of champagne before giving a performance.  The iron-clad rules of the old Manor Club were lifted on this occasion in order that the tenor might quaff his wine before lifting his voice in song.

With particular enthusiasm and an obviously sincere admiration for her many fine quantities, Mrs. Gilliland speaks of the late Mrs. Joan E. Secor, a brilliant, gracious and leading figure in the old days of Pelham Manor.  A leader of the Tuesday Afternoon Club, Mrs. Secor was to carry on her cultural activities in the Manor Club when it became a Woman’s Club. 

Mrs. Brown recalls the old Toonerville Trolley with affectionate memory.  She lived on Pelhamdale Avenue for some time and remembers one particularly stormy Winter night when the car was stalled in front of her home.  She supplied the motorman with hot coffee and food during the long night hours when he refused to leave the car, hoping that help might come at any moment to dig him out of the drifts.

Mrs. Gilliland moves along with the times, keeping her club interests formed so many years ago.  She is an honorary member of the Manor Club now and was the first chairman of the club house committee.  Mrs. Gilliland was honored last Spring for long association with the Pelham Home, having served as a board member since the founding of the cardiac institution on Split Rock Road.”

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