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, June 28, 2018

More on the Little Mothers Aid Association and its Use of Hunter's Mansion on Hunter's Island

In late 1890 or early 1891, a woman named Alma Calvin Johnson founded a charity based in New York City called The Little Mothers Aid Association.  The charity recognized that there were many young girls in the tenements of New York City who were forced to serve as the principal caregivers for their siblings while their parents toiled away at jobs to make ends meet.  Alma Calvin Johnson founded the charity to allow such tiny caregivers to visit the countryside outside New York City and enjoy a time to play and to celebrate the joys of youth. 

By the mid-1890s, the New York City Park Commissioner granted the charity the right to use the old Hunter Mansion in Pelham Bay Park on Hunter's Island and the surrounding estate for the benefit of the "Little Mothers."  The organization named the mansion "Holiday House" and transported girls from New York City on the New Haven Branch Line to Bartow Station from which they were taken by carriage to Hunter's Island.

I have written before about the use of the Hunter's Mansion on Hunter's Island by the Little Mothers Aid Association.  See, e.g. Fri., Apr. 15, 2016:  The Little Mothers Aid Association and its Use of Hunter's Mansion on Hunters Island in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries.

Exterior of Front of John Hunter's Mansion on Hunters Island, 1882. Embedded
Image Not Copied to the Historic Pelham Blog so If the Image is Removed by its
Owner or the Link to it is Changed, It Will No Longer Display Here. Source: 
Digital Version of Albumen Print in Collections of the Museum of the City of
New York, No. X2010.11.10134.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Today's Historic Pelham Blog article transcribes the text of a fascinating article published in 1903.  The reporter who wrote it visited Hunter's Island on a number of occasions one week and even traveled with the young girls selected to enjoy the island and Hunter's Mansion under the auspices of the Little Mothers Aid Association.  The article provides a fascinating glimpse of what it was like for the youngsters who enjoyed the island and its amenities in the first years of the Twentieth Century.

*          *          *          *          *

Country Pleasures for Little Girls With Younger Brothers and Sisters to Care For -- A Deserted Baby -- A Little Mother Who Believes in Race Suicide.

A place of joy is Hunter's Island, in the Sound, for there the little mothers forget their burdens.

It is a great deal more fun, especially if one is under 12 and frail, to gather golden rod and pick blackberries, to go in bathing and to eat two plates of ice cream for dinner than it is to carry a baby up and down tenement stairs and take care of it all day long in close rooms or the street.  That is why little mothers are so anxious to go to Hunter's Island that they will resort to little subterfuges to get there and to stay as long as possible.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays parties of them, marshalled by the chaperons of the Little Mother's Aid Society, seek the Hunter's Island woods and shore, and it was last Tuesday that one little mother went in spite of obstacles.  She had obtained an outing badge at the society's office in Second avenue, but the trouble was that there was no one save herself to take care of her brother, eight months old, while her mother was away cleaning windows in an office building.  On this account Jennie didn't dare to ask if she might go.

At 7 o'clock on Tuesday morning her mother went to work.  Before 9 Jennie had the baby dressed and fed and lulled to sleep and was herself arrayed in her very best.  She had to hurry in the writing of the little note telling where she had gone, but she reached the starting place in time.

Apparently no one enjoyed more than she did the ride in the cars, and in the stage through Pelham Bay Park and woods on Hunter's Island up to the big house overlooking the Sound.  She went in bathing, ate plenty of dinner and in the afternoon filled her apron with apples to take back to the city.

It was not until Jennie was on the Third avenue elevated train in the early evening and near home that she began to cry.  Then the story of her running away came out.  She was afraid to face her mother.

'Now don't you cry any more,' exclaimed the young woman who had lent a sympathetic ear to Jennie's recital of her troubles.  'I'll go home with you myself, and it will be all right.  You see if it isn't.'

And it was.

'I heard the little tyke a-hollerin' away,' Mrs. Cassidy, who lives on the same floor, remarked in the course of the explanations, 'and I brought him in here, and after I got him quiet I give him a crust, and he ain't hardly been any trouble all day.'

Jennie's mother was appeased by the tactful words of the teacher, and by the apples, which her small daughter had held in her apron as a peace offering.

'Sure, and we'll get four or five messes of apple sauce out of this, anyhow,' was an observation with which she consoled herself for the danger to the baby.

Keen as the little mothers are about getting to Hunter's Island, they are even more anxious to remain when they have felt its charms.  The poorest and most delicate, who are allowed to stay a week, are greatly envied by those who must return to the East Side after a single day of roaming in the woods and along the shore and on the grassy slopes around the fine stone house that is the society's country home.

'Teacher, teacher, Annie ain't here!' called out a shrill-voiced little girl in the train one afternoon when the children were returning from a day's outing on the island.

A hasty and agitated count by the chaperons proved that this was true.  It is difficult to keep track of each one of fifty youngsters on a trip involving changes.  Annie might easily have stayed away unnoticed, and visions of accidents destroyed the peace of mind of those who were responsible for the children.

But they learned that night that Annie was all right.  She was still on Hunter's Island.  When the time had come for her to go home with the others, she had hidden away, but had put in an appearance when the horn blew for supper.

When the stage was about to start for the station on Tuesday a little mother, surrounded by a group of sympathizers, approached the superintendent with tears rolling down her cheeks.

'I -- I came to stay for -- for a week,' she sobbed, 'but I got a mark, and the -- the teacher says I must go home.'

'Well, well,' said the superintendent soothingly, 'that's too bad.  Will you promise me that you'll be such a good girl that you won't get any more marks?'

'Yes'm,' answered this repentant little mother, eagerly brushing away the tears.

'Well, then, you just take off your hat again, and go with the rest out to the swing.  But, remember, I shall expect you to be one of the very best of my girls all week.'

'It is a rule that if a girl gets a bad mark she has to go home,' explained the superintendent; 'but I don't send a girl home once in a month.  They are very easy little things to manage if you take the trouble to put yourself in a sympathetic relationship with them.'

'I like this place just -- just fierce,' remarked Lizzie, settling back in her rocking chair on the porch, with a little sigh of contentment over the fact that she was staying, as she watched a crowd of the others climb into the stage.  Lizzie, who is 12, is busy knitting a woollen jacket for a small sister at home.

'But it seems awful funny at night till you get used to it,' she went on.  'It's so dark all around outside, and the bugs and things in the grass sing so dreary that you feel scary and kind o' wish you was home.  But in the daytime you forget all that.'

Within a few minutes after the children arrive at the house on Hunter's Island in the morning they go running down the grassy hill where small waves lap the sand between the rocks.  As quickly as possible they don the bathing suits furnished by the society, and then the fun begins.

There are duckings and splashings and screams of laughter; a few who live in neighborhoods where there are free baths can swim.  The majority have never been bathing before, and they approach the water gingerly until they gain courage from the example of others.

'Teacher, are you allowed to get your suit wet?' asked one of the first little girls out of the bathhouse the other day.

A little while after the bath is over the horn toots for dinner.  The little mothers, who have heard that there is to be ice-cream, crowd eagerly into the wide hallway, form in a line impatiently, and, to the music of a lively air on the piano, march in to their places in front of long rows of plates with meat and potatoes and stewed corn on them, and glasses of milk with big pieces of bread and butter on top.

After dinner the little mothers go for blackberries in the woods, and gather big bunches of goldenrod and clover and black eyed susans in the meadow, and load their aprons with apples to take home for apple sauce.

'Do you see that round-faced little girl over there swinging?' said a chaperon.  'She looks quite happy, doesn't she?'  She didn't look that way when we first found her, about two weeks ago.  Her mother was in the hospital and her father had disappeared.

'She had been living all alone in the tenement for a day or two when the landlord came along and put the few pieces of furniture on the street and turned her over to a neighbor.  The latter couldn't keep her, and when we picked her up she was sitting crying on the curb, with her little bundle in her arms.'

'Have you any little brothers and sisters, Mamie,' asked the chaperon of a serious-faced child who was sitting near.

'Yes'm.  I have one that high,' answered Mamie, holding her hand on a level with her neck, 'and one that high,' lowering her hand to her waist, 'and the baby.'

'Who takes care of them all?'

'I do, and I do the housework, too.'

'I don't believe in children,' volunteered an ex-little mother who had graduated, as many of them do, from housekeeping in a tenement to work in a department store, and was spending her vacation at Hunter's Island.  'Why not?  That's easy.  Because they cost too much, and you can't tend to them right if you have to work yourself.'"

Source:  OUTINGS OF LITTLE MOTHERS -- EXCURSIONS FROM THE EAST SIDE TO HUNTER'S ISLAND -- Country Pleasures for Little Girls With Younger Brothers and Sisters to Care For -- A Deserted Baby -- A Little Mother Who Believes in Race Suicide, The Sun [NY, NY], Aug. 23, 1903, p. 6, cols. 3-4.

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