Like other historical organizations GGRWHC is regularly contacted to help with research queries on individual women or historical events, which often uncover persons and associations that only add more detail to the rich history of women in our city. As an example of such a query, Peg from New England wrote asking what we might know about one Helen Smith.
Peg’s knowledge was limited to an 1890 letter from from Mary Wilkins Freeman addressed to Mrs. Smith. A friend had found it tucked inside a book written by Wilkins Freeman, a prominent 19th-century author from Massachusetts. We have no idea just how her letter to a woman in Grand Rapids found its way back to the site of its composition; but it appears from the contents of the letter that Mrs. Smith had requested an “autograph,” by which she meant a letter to be read to a club audience of 500!
Mrs. Smith was president of the Grand Rapids Ladies Literary Club from 1886 to 1888. Mrs. Smith may have become aware of Wilkins Freeman because the club would be discussing one of her books and that the club made a practice of collecting authors’ “autographs.” We found no mention of Wilkins Freeman in LLC yearbooks in the Grand Rapids Public Library’s archive, but did find that they conducted review programs of “Recent Works of Women.”
Wilkins Freeman must have been a subject for one of those discussions, for which Smith requested information because they knew so little about her “personally.” In her four-page letter Wilkins Freeman tells about the conditions under which she wrote back in her home town, where she was living with a childhood friend. Smith’s request was sent extremely early in the 38-year-old author’s long writing career, which took off the following year in 1891 with both A New England Nun and “The Revolt of Mother,” a famous short story about the frustrations of rural women in New England, her common theme.
She was born Helen Griffith in Sheldon, New York, in 1849. At 29 years old in 1879 she married Henry Smith, thirty years her senior, in Evanston, Illinois. Henry was elected mayor of Grand Rapids in 1878 and died in 1881, just after a second term as mayor and two years of marriage to Helen, who continued to live in his house at 76 Jefferson SE with two stepdaughters. In 1891 she married Isaac Powell, with whom she had a son. After Isaac died in 1903, the family remained in the house on Jefferson through 1910, after which the Berton Spring Funeral Home was located at that address.
From a scrapbook in the Isaac Powell and Sarah Kingsley Smith Collection in the GRPL archives, we found pictures of the family, including several of Helen and of the house on Jefferson. When Helen died in 1935, the newspaper lauded her for her work with the Ladies Literary Club (she was president during the building’s construction), as well as for her service with the Welfare Union, Park Congregational Church, and the Grand Rapids Art Association. In her 80s and just before her death, Helen presided over the board of the Salvation Army’s Evangeline Home for unwed mothers, today Booth Memorial Hospital. She was also a member of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
This article can also be found in the Winter 2018 GGRWHC Newsletter.