Volume XXIX · Number 1 · Autumn 1975
Memories of a Childhood at Warner Castle
--RUTH VAN DEUSEN
This is not a historical study. Historians of Rochester have told the story of Warner Castle and of the Warner family. I wish merely to share the hours I spent recently with two remarkable women whose excellent memories cover almost a century of life in the Rochester area. They are sisters, Sarah Warner Gorsline, who was ninety-six in July, and Mary Rubergal Warner Brown, who was ninety-two last October. They are the daughters of the late John B. Y. and Mary Franchot Warner.
Their earliest years were spent on a plantation in Greensboro, Georgia, which their father owned and operated for about twenty years after the Civil War. Mrs. Gorsline remembers many details of those years in the south -- the mammy cook who prepared food on an open fireplace, the much-loved nurse Kitty Stocks, who always came north with the family in the summer, the servant boys who came in each morning to light the fires in the fireplaces. She also remembers Bill Wesley, the servant who looked after the family cow and horses. He too came north in the summer, and the Ellwanger, Barry, and Warner children loved to gather in the barn at Warner Castle and listen to him tell folktales of the type later immortalized by J. C. Harris in his Uncle Remus stories.
The family stayed at Jerry Bolles' hotel on Conesus Lake during its annual northern sojourn. But Sarah Warner often visited her Grandmother Warner at the Castle and was taught gardening by her. While most of the housework at Warner Castle was done by servants, Mrs. Warner would trust the handling of the milk to no one but herself. Mrs. Gorsline remembers getting up early in the morning to watch her grandmother skimming the cream and preparing the milk for family use.
Sarah and Mary were about nine and five respectively when the plantation was sold and the family moved to Warner Castle. In Rochester their circle of friends widened; for, though they lived a good ways out from the city, there were the Ellwanger, Barry, and Farley children of approximately the same age to play with.
The Warner property was extensive, running from Mt. Hope to South Avenue and Highland Avenue to what is now Menlo Place. Besides the gardens to the east and south of the Castle, there was a beautiful woodland to the northeast. In the spring the woodland was a carpet of wildflowers which the Warner children learned from their mother to identify. From their mother too they learned their love of nature which has been very much a part of their lives. Mrs. Brown still has and refers to the book of wildflowers that was given her when she was a child at Warner Castle. She and Rose Barry became interested in pressing flowers, and Patrick Barry was so delighted with this activity that he designed and made a special flower press. Mrs. Brown showed me the press; it still contains a flower which she put there long ago.
Mrs. Gorsline recalls one spring when the entire family was concentrating on protecting the one lady slipper plant that grew in the woodland. After a luncheon party given by her mother, the guests went walking in the woods, and to Mrs. Warner's horror, one of the guests returned with a lady slipper flower she had picked, saying, "I wonder what this flower is."
There was a private tennis court where Castle Park is now, and the Warners always kept a Kentucky-bred riding horse for the children to ride. On Saturdays in the Winter there was skating at the Canal Aqueduct on Exchange Street and at the abandoned horsecar barns on Park Avenue near Culver Road. But there was always a rule that they must be home by five o'clock, because even then it wasn't safe for children to be on the street after dark.
Every summer the circus came to town and this was perhaps the high point of the whole year. Mr. Warner loved the circus, so the entire family, including the baby with a nursemaid, always attended. The oldest child, Richard, went with the other boys to watch the circus being set up, and they all got up early the morning of the performance to watch the parade.
For about two years after the move to Rochester, Sarah attended a school taught by the George Ellwanger governess and held in the Ellwanger home. The sisters entered No. 3 School on Tremont Street when they were in the third and sixth grades. Each morning they walked down Mt. Hope Avenue, gathering children as they went along, then across the Clarissa Street Bridge, down Grieg Street to Plymouth Avenue. At lunchtime they were picked up with the family horse and carriage and brought home for the midday meal, then taken back to school. After school they walked home. Each Saturday morning Harriet Barry taught the neighborhood children to sew. This proved to be a lasting interest for Sarah, who, after graduating from Mechanics Institute, taught dressmaking at the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in Auburn, and at Mechanics.
Mary was, I think, a somewhat mischievous child. She has a vivid recollection of climbing the plum trees on what is now Reservoir Avenue, and throwing plums at the people taking a Sunday afternoon stroll.
Christmas at the Castle was a happy occasion, though the emphasis was placed on the spirit of giving rather than on elaborate presents. The packages that arrived from aunts and uncles who lived out of town were always exciting. Mrs. Brown still uses the workbasket made for her by her Aunt Clara Warner, who lived in Rochester and spent Christmas at the Castle. The children spent hours making presents for the family and popping and stringing the popcorn that decorated the tree. The most memorable part of the dinner was the plum pudding which Aunt Clara Warner always made. Mary learned the secret of the plum pudding from her aunt and has continued the tradition of making it for everyone in the family. For the past two years her great-niece, Elizabeth Angle Webster, has been making the pudding, under Mrs. Brown's supervision, for her immediate family.
After No. 3 school both sisters attended the Rochester Free Academy, where each was salutatorian of her class. Sarah would have liked to go to the University of Rochester, but the admission of women was still a few years in the future. Susan B. Anthony and Mary Gannett were working hard toward that end, and Sarah Warner and Helen Probst were two of the four young women Miss Anthony took with her when she lectured, as examples of the type of woman who wanted to be admitted. Smith College, where her friend, Helen Rochester Rogers, was going, was Mary Warner's choice, but family finances made college impossible for her.
During Mary's final year in high school, Warner Castle was sold, and the family moved to a farm just outside Scottsville. She was familiar with the area around Scottsville because one of the favorite bicycle paths ran along the Genesee Canal towpath from Rochester to Scottsville. She and her friends liked to ride out and have a soda pop at Salyerd's in the village before the ride back. She remembers that her father bought her first Columbia bicycle as a reward for seeing that there were always fresh flowers on the dining room table at Warner Castle.
The years just after the turn of the century were full of interesting social activity for both young women. Mary traveled a good deal, visiting friends and relatives, particularly the Paiges in Schenectady and the Tones in Niagara Falls (Mr. and Mrs. Tone, incidentally, were the parents of Franchot Tone, the late well-known movie actor). Sarah, who was teaching in Rochester, was the guest during the week of Miss Jane Brewster, but she went home to Scottsville by train each weekend. Both girls were often invited to college functions, such as Junior Week at Cornell and Williams and graduation parties at Union College, from which their grandfather, father, and brother were all graduated.
Mrs. Gorsline remembers one Cornell Junior Week especially. The girls who went from Rochester were chaperoned by the mother of one of the boys. The fraternity house was turned over to the guests and there was a round of teas, receptions, walks, and just sitting around and talking. Mrs. Gorsline recalls all too vividly a moment of great embarrassment for her. She was walking across the campus with her host when the snap on her blue and green plaid petticoat gave way, and the petticoat began to slip down. She excused herself and hurried back to the fraternity house to fix it.
On at least two occasions Mary was a guest at the famous Ward house parties on Hemlock Lake. Emma Ward, Mrs. Brown's close friend, was a student at Dobbs, and the Ward boys were attending Princeton, so the guests were largely out-of-town school friends. Each evening couples paired off and went out on the lake in rowboats. Later there was entertainment such as group singing, amateur dramatics, and the popular game of "Up Jenkins." Mary's specialty was impersonating, but she was shy and performed reluctantly.
The first real change in the Warner family circle came on 19 November 1903, when Sarah was married to William H. Gorsline. The wedding took place at five o'clock in front of the fireplace in the Scottsville house, and the ceremony was performed by Dr. William C. Gannett, assisted by Dr. Taylor of the Brick Presbyterian Church. The bride was attended by her sisters, Mary and Ann (later Mrs. Wesley M. Angle), Caroline Stoddard, Deeta Mitchell, and Alice Little. Over her satin wedding gown, with a chiffon top and wide pleated chiffon ruffle on the bottom of the skirt, she wore a handmade lace flounce that had been her grandmother's. Her tulle veil was held in place by a small lace cap, with an orange-blossom wreath. Mr. Warner arranged for a special stop by the BR&P (Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh) railroad at a crossroad near the house, since most of the guests came from Rochester by train. Mrs. Gorsline has a clear recollection of watching the guests come across the snowy fields from the crossroad. After the ceremony a wedding supper was served and the young couple was toasted with her father's famous "spring water" before leaving for a honeymoon at Cape May, New Jersey. Their first home was on Merriman Street, in a house owned by Warren Cutler, followed by two or three years in Douglas Ward's house on Grove Place. In 1907 or 1908 their own Gordon-designed house on Culver Road was completed, and here the family lived for nearly half a century, while the children, Mary Franchot, Henry, and Douglas, were growing up.
Just over a year after Sarah's wedding, on 25 January 1905, Mary Rubergal Warner became Mrs. Eugene Brown, at a noon ceremony in the Grace Episcopal Church in Scottsville. Her satin wedding gown, with handmade Valenciennes lace fichu, as well as her going-away suit and a dress for her trousseau, were the gifts of her uncle. As with her sister's wedding, many of the guests came from Rochester by train. In the twenty-four hours preceding the wedding, three feet of snow fell, and the guests had to be met at the station with bobsleds. The bride was attended by her sister Ann as maid of honor, and Ethel Millard, Emma Ward, Laura Farley, and Grace Hastings as bridesmaids. The ceremony was followed by a wedding breakfast at the Warner home, again with the famous "spring water" toast to the newlyweds. The twenty-pound wedding fruitcake was baked at home from an old family recipe by the bride's aunt, Janet Paige. After a two-month wedding trip to California, the young couple returned to the lovely Brown homestead, the first clapboard house west of the Genesee River. Mrs. Brown vividly recalls the thrill of that first spring in her new home. Her husband gave her Zeiss binoculars, and through them she watched the apple trees in the valley come into bloom, and saw the first oriole of the season. Here their four children, Thomas, John, Barbara, and Nicholas, were born, and here Mrs. Brown still is the gracious hostess.
The greatest tribute I can pay these two charming women is that after a visit with them, I think not at all about their ages, but about the interesting time I have had with them.