In 1880 when twenty year old Annie Louise Smithwick left her home in County Tipperary, she packed her dowry in the false bottom of her trunk into which she also packed two tennis racquets and the handsome lace wedding veil her mother had worn when she married. Annie's mother was Catholic but her father was an Anglo-Irish Protestant and as such, the possessor of a small but comfortable estate--a thing denied to Catholics under British rule. She was the third of seven children with two older brothers, the eldest of whom would inherit his father's property. Annie was on her way to America to housekeep for her second brother who was working as a civil engineer on the building of a railroad line in the Midwest. She was the oldest of five sisters, all of whom would be dowried by their father. He was in comfortable circumstances and the dowries were considerable--twenty five hundred dollars in gold. Annie brought the veil along evidently thinking ahead. A soft-hearted girl, she had regretfully turned down one proposal of marriage already.
Annie was no average emigrant traveling steerage class and disembarking at Ellis Island. She had a comfortable and pleasant voyage to New York where she was met by a cousin. From there she proceeded to Chicago where another cousin awaited her. It was the last she saw of then modern civilization for some time. She went off into what was literally the wild blue yonder of the Nebraska prairies where her brother Richard lived at a railway outpost near the tiny town of Hay Spring, Nebraska. It was a happy reunion and if Annie was somewhat shocked by the primitive living conditions of the area, she was young and adaptable and soon accepted them. Hay Spring needed a schoolteacher and she took the job.
One day brother Dick' s best friend, Arthur DeWitt, came to visit. Entranced by Annie, he came often. Love bloomed, entirely disinterested on Arthur's part since was unaware of Annie's fat dowry. Born in South Carolina, he had come with his parents to Nebraska some years before. He was a young man with a dream and the dream was of a homestead on the prairie, a place where he could raise crops for food and be independent. His claim was staked and he was building a solid adobe house on it. Annie accepted his proposal of marriage and on April 18, 1887 the wedding took place in the small Catholic church in Hay Spring. The fate of the tennis racquets is unknown but on that happy occasion the lace veil came out of the trunk. When Annie, clad in one of her pretty taffeta dresses, wore it, it made its first appearance in the New World.
When the small house with substantial foot-thick walls was finished, the young couple moved in. It was a lonesome place out on the immense prairie with the nearest neighbors miles away. In Spring the country was beautiful---grass-covered and with purple lupins blooming everywhere. In summer searing heat dried the grass and burnt it brown. Annie and Arthur, in their isolation, became more and more devoted to each other and had yet to realize that Nature itself seemed to be conspiring against them. An unusually hot summer was followed by an icy winter when howling winds blew across the plains and snow piled up against the door. In the midst of this, their first child, a baby girl, was born and died. This was a personal tragedy that had to be accepted. Arthur made a tiny wooden coffin which Annie lined with taffeta from one of her dresses. In the spring just after carefully planted corn was beginning to show, an enormous cloud of grasshoppers descended on the homestead and devoured every tender shoot. There was drought, and severe flooding after heavy and relentless rain. There was a windswept prairie fire. Their second little daughter was born and lived only a few days so there were two small graves.
In June of 1890 they were more fortunate. A healthy baby boy was born and named Ashley after the river Arthur remembered from his boyhood home. Aside from this, it was a bad year for the country in general. Banks were failing and people, unable to keep up mortgage payments, were losing their homes. Unhappy Indians, crowded into the Pine Ridge Reservation, were restless and the year ended with the tragic and shocking Wounded Knee massacre. Annie's dowry had dwindled to almost nothing but she, as well as Arthur had staked a claim so they owned some land that could be salable. The homestead dream had faded but they had pictures of their first home. Annie had artistic talent and had painted them. A resourceful young woman, she had created her own materials, crushing berries and flowers and going so far as to chew grass for the colors she wanted.
They decided to go to Omaha where Arthur's parents lived and to try to find something--anything--to keep themselves and the baby afloat. After the birth and death of their first child, Arthur, worried about Annie's health, had taken her to Omaha for a change of scene and to meet his parents so when they came this time she already knew her in-laws. Arthur's father, Gabriel, orphaned as a young child and understandably embittered by a series of misfortunes, was often a trial to his family. Stubborn and intolerant, he had been an officer in the Confederate army and was still fighting the Civil War. He seemed to have a perpetual chip on his shoulder. Euphrosine, Arthur's mother, was a French woman, the daughter of one of Napoleon's officers. Like Annie, she was from a well-to-do family and a devout Catholic. Almost immediately the two women were friends, liking and respecting each other.
Annie also became fond of Arthur's sister, Marie. Arthur left Annie and Ashley in Omaha while he went to Lincoln where he had the names of some men who might help him. They did. Suddenly, incredibly, his luck changed. He was sent to the owner of a wholesale grocery business who wanted to start a small retail store in Lincoln. Arthur had the prairie acres to offer as collateral, the deal was made, and he found himself in business as a grocer. Although not basically a practical man, he went to work immediately, found a suitable location, and opened a store. It wasn't an overnight success but astonishingly soon, it began to prosper and the financial troubles were over. Arthur, a staunch Democrat, attributed his good fortune to the second election of Grover Cleveland to the presidency.
Annie and Arthur had two more children, Donald and Gladys. They moved into a comfortable house. Annie not only took care of her family but also went back to her art work and sold several of her paintings. On the surface, all seemed to be smooth but she was not well. The appallingly harsh winter weather on the prairie had seriously damaged and undermined her health. Day by day it deteriorated. On Mother's Day in 1914, she died in her sleep. She was only fifty four years old.
Annie's and Arthur's children grew up. Ashley and Don married and Don in his later years, wrote a detailed and affectionate account of his parents' lives. From this I have gleaned what I know of them. Gladys chose "the road not taken" and became a nun. She wore the beautiful veil on the day she became Sister Mary Victoria and from that time, it took on a life of its own. Annie's progeny seemed to be everywhere. Don's daughter used the veil as an altar cloth. Ashley's daughters wrote from California asking that it be sent to them for their children's weddings. At least sixteen brides have worn it and it has been used as an altar cloth again and again--once by one of Annie's great-grandsons. The first time I saw it was when one of her great-granddaughters, a pretty redhead, married my oldest son. The last time I saw it was at the garden wedding of a child of that union. On that day in a felicitous stroke of ecumenism, this Catholic symbol served as the roof of a chuppah, the traditional Jewish "house without walls". Time-wise and literally the veil, first worn more than a century and a half ago and a memento of a much-loved wife and mother, has come a long way from Tipperary.