Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Well Jess you have got the best of everything

North End Bridge over the Connecticut River, seen from West Springfield, 1900

Jessie already seemed wise beyond her years by the time her brother was born. Their parents, Henry and Neeltje, were 40. The children had four grandparents, two great-grandparents, and a dozen aunts and uncles who had treated Jessie as an adult since she was small. When John came along in 1901, her maternal grandfather, Pieter John Brummelkamp, wrote to her from Syracuse:

My dear Jessie, What news did I hear. I must have dreamed it that you have a Brother. Am I right or wrong. If I am right then enclosed you will find a Bill. Go down the street and buy him a pair of boots and tell him to get up and shovel snow. If you haven’t any snow tell him to come to grand Pa, we have got plenty. Well Jess you have got the best of everything. It isn’t everybody that can have a Brother. Love to Ma & Pa, PJB

Two cities dominated the children’s early years: Syracuse, N.Y. and West Springfield, Mass. In both places Jessie came down from a long line of Jessies. Her mother’s mother, sister, and great-grandmother all were Jessies. Her father’s mother was a Jessie and his great-great-grandmothers both were named Jessie. This particular Jessie, born in 1894, would be the end of the line; married late, no children.

The families wore their homes like badges of honor, posing for photographs on Easter Sunday, the afternoon sun shining right into their eyes. In Syracuse, they composed themselves in lawn chairs with the photographer clear on the other side of West Genesee Street so that the figures are barely recognizable. In West Springfield, they sat under an enormous beech tree surely 200 years old.  

Jessie and John’s parents were not an obvious match. Neeltje thought West Springfield unfashionable and decamped each year for the social season in Syracuse where she stayed and stayed, often bringing the children with her. They moved between the sumptuous d├ęcor and service of the Brummelkamp home and rough-and-tumble West Springfield where John chopped down a dead apple tree, repaired a canoe, and fetched sugar from the A & P when they were down to two lbs. 

Neeltje was one of three beautiful daughters whose mother was one of five lovely daughters. PJ, a stocky immigrant from Utrecht, had business with Jane Brewster’s father and fell madly in love with her. After PJ and Jane married, he brought her to Syracuse where he built a successful men’s furnishings store. He ran it until 1883 when Governor Grover Cleveland appointed him superintendent of the Onondaga Salt Springs Reservation.* In 1890 PJ was photographed “at camp” in the Adirondacks, wielding a fishing rod and dressed prematurely like a Rough Rider.


Onondaga Salt Springs, 1908

After PJ died in 1902, some thought that Henry and Neeltje might grow closer but that was not to be, for Neeltje spent even more time in Syracuse with her mother.

As Jessie later said of herself, she was “born raised” and largely brought up John. She enabled him to carve out a childhood. She insisted that her father take his son skating on the Connecticut River during the long frozen winters. She encouraged John to become manager of the high school baseball team and apply to Tufts because he hoped to be an engineer. She appreciated John’s enthralled interest in the future although her manner and views always marched resolutely out of the Victorian past.

To be continued.


*Jesuit missionaries first discovered salt springs around Onondaga Lake, about 6 miles northwest of Syracuse, in the mid-17th century. Between 1797 and 1917, the Onondaga Salt Springs Reservation produced more than 11.5 million tons of finished salt.

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