Alice Almira Wolcott — 1863–1957

Alice Almira Wolcott

Alice Wolcott was born during the Civil War and lived a long, productive life in Michigan. Most of what I know about Alice came from my mother, Alice's only grand-daughter who grew to adulthood, and most of it is tainted by a lifetime of anger. Nevertheless, Alice is a person of interest.

Family

Alice, born May 22, 1863, in Jonesville, Hillsdale County, Michigan, was the oldest child of David Albert Wolcott and Helen Augusta Cleveland.

Her father, David, was the second son of William L. Wolcott, farmer and minister, and Sarah Storms. David's family moved to Michigan during the 1840s from Sandusky County, Ohio where David and his older brother, Myron, were born. William obtained land grants in Hillsdale county from the government in 1837 so eventually the family moved north.

Alice's mother, Helen Cleveland, was the second oldest child and daughter of Joseph Jerome Cleveland and Almira Warren, both of Leicester, New York. The Cleveland family moved from New York to Michigan sometime between 1851 and 1857. In the 1860 Census for Scipio in Hillsdale county, it appears that the Clevelands were neighbors of the Wolcotts.

David and Helen married in August 1862, right before David joined up with the Union Army. Alice was born the following May.

Though her Cleveland relatives moved west to Muskegon before 1870, Alice was still surrounded by lots of kin. In addition to the Wolcotts, there were a number of Storms relatives in Hillsdale county as well as her Warren grandparents. How close they were is unknown of course.

Alice may have had two brothers, John and Verne. John was born about 1868 and appears in the 1870 census, but appears to have died as a young child because there is no record of him in 1870. (The alternate explanation is that John was being cared for by Helen and David Wolcott and was not their child at all. This is corroborated by the 1900 census in which Helen claims only two children both of whom were living at the time.) Verne was born in 1873 and, like Alice, lived to a ripe old age, dying in New Jersey in 1967.

Alice grew up in Scipio and lived in Hillsdale county until she completed her studies at Hillsdale College in 1883. After completing her schooling—college prep work in science—she moved to Muskegon and took a position as a teacher. She taught school for three years.

Marriage and children

In January 1886, Alice married Frank Storrs in Muskegon, Michigan. Frank's family had the same pioneering New England and Dutch antecedents as Alice.

They lived close by, if not with, Frank's father, Major Charles E. Storrs and his second wife, Rachel Farmer Storrs. Between the good Major and Frank, they built up a successful farm, estate, and vineyard with acres of vines and greenhouses.

Between 1888 and 1891, Alice and Frank produced three children: Helen Marie, Clark W., and Rae Alice.

Helen, Clark, & Rae Storrs

Alice was evidently a fussy, somewhat overprotective mother. Helen, having had pneumonia as a child, was watched over relentlessly and, in fact, wanted to escape her mother's eye. Alice wanted her close by so she could take care of her if she got sick. As Helen got older this became an issue and eventually lead to Helen's rather impetuous marriage.

Rae, being somewhat more robust and younger, was able to escape, go to school, and marry. Clark stayed closer to home, married badly once, divorced and didn't marry again until the 1930s, ostensibly because Alice wanted him close, according to Alice's granddaughter, Mary.

All about Alice

Alice was evidently an opinionated, reasonably well-educated woman. In studying science at Hillsdale College, known for its teachers' programs and progressive leanings, Alice must have assumed the same progressive leanings herself.

In some respects, she was probably not well matched to the quieter, more self-effacing Frank. Like her father-in-law, Alice was more of a driving personality, with work to do and people to win (or bend) to her will. Her favorite grandchild was Helen's oldest son, Frank, named for his grandfather.

My mother, Mary Helen Ferrill, absolutely detested her. "Grandma" as Alice was called, was the matriarch and her judgments overruled both Helen and Hollie Ferrill's parental rulings. If Alice was a martinet, which seems likely, it was probably because she had the brains, the will, and the financial resources to manipulate her children and grandchildren ... most likely she thought she was doing what was best for everyone.

Widowed in 1920 at 58, Alice inherited all the land and money that Major Storrs and Frank had built up over the previous 50 years. While not wealthy, she was certainly well-established financially and socially in North Muskegon.

Her oldest daughter Helen married Hollie Ferrill in 1907. Hollie worked for Frank on the farm and in the greenhouses, and lived next to the big house on Ruddiman for about 20 years. Alice evidently never much cared for Hollie and at best tolerated him. Not that there was anything wrong with him, but he certainly was not a go-getter. It probably didn't help knowing that she was, at least inadvertently, responsible for Hollie and Helen meeting, since she probably sent her children to visit their grandparents in Hart, Michigan where David and Helen Wolcott opened a general store in the 1890s. Young Hollie Ferrill was employed by David as a butcher.

By 1930, Alice was living with just her son, Clark. Hollie and Helen had by then moved to a house nearby on Interlaken. Rae had married for a second time to Calder Berry and lived in Portage.

Helen and Hollie wanted to move to Florida, but when the subject came up, "Grandma threw fits" and the subject was dropped. Hollie and Helen managed to move to a farm outside of Muskegon where they lived the rest of their lives.

Since Clark never had any children, Rae had three boys, two of whom died rather young and without children, the only nearby grandchildren were Helen's kids, over whom Alice exerted as much influence as she was able. Rae's son, James, had two children but they were infrequent visitors.

The Granddaughter's Tale

Alice remains an unknown quantity in many respects. It's hard to tell what type of person Alice really was because her grand-daughter had nothing nice to say about her. Alice may not have known what to make of Mary, who was a rather odd person when you come right down to it.

Mary claimed that Alice fought endlessly with her brother Verne and was bitter because her parents had prevented a marriage that Alice wanted, instead encouraging her to marry Frank Storrs. Alice was also allegedly bitter because she had been treated as a princess by her parents until Verne's birth and then she was cast aside in favor of the longed for son.

Apart from the possible existence of John Wolcott (Alice's younger brother?), there is nothing that directly refutes Mary's interpretation, except this: I doubt that Alice was the virago Mary claimed. The antipathy was probably longstanding and mutual.

One particularly unflattering picture of Alice emerges from a recollection of Mary's that took place in February 1923. Mary, about 4, recalls the drowning death of her sister Ruth. She remembers Alice saying, that the "good one died and the bad one lived."

Did Alice actually say such a cruel thing? While it could be chalked up to grief, misinterpretation by a 4-year old, or that peculiar filter Mary used with most information, the fact remains that single pivotal event colored Mary's entire relationship with her grandmother for the rest of her life.

Politics and religion

There is some question about Alice's political leanings. Granddaughter Mary, a staunch Republican, claimed Alice was a Democrat and never lost an opportunity to argue politics. Frequently, the arguments with her brother Verne resulted in his hasty departure, because she "just could not be reasoned with." Other family members say she was the Republican and Verne the Democrat. The one thing all agree on was that she was strong-minded and opinionated and was not retiring about sharing her thoughts.

In religious matters, Alice was a Methodist.

In the end

She lived to be 93 years old. In 1957, she fell out of bed and died.

I was raised to believe this woman was just this side of the devil. It was not until I started researching the few facts available about her that I was able to set aside my mother's experience and form my own opinion. I don't think she was nearly the ogre my mother portrays. I do think she's interesting.

Updated June 12, 2008

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