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Memories of Our First President General

by Kate Scott Brooks
Niece of Caroline Scott Harrison

Your first President General?  What was she like?  A handsome brunette with sparkling brown eyes, softly waving brown hair and a vivacious, kindly face, usually smiling and showing much intelligence.   She was of medium height, and at the time of her election as the first President General of the newly organized patriotic society, was rather plump.   She was always well dressed, appropriately and becomingly, but with simplicity and never extravagantly.

Mrs. Harrison took up the duties of President General with much more awe than she felt on assuming the duties of mistress of the White House and “First Lady of the Land.”  She was not a clubwoman.   Her chief interest in life after her responsibilities as wife, mother and housekeeper, were her church work and charity work in which she was very active.

She was a member of every charity organization in Indianapolis, her hometown, and was at the head of several of them.   Before her husband was elected to the United States Senate in 1882, she had taught for many years, the infant class in the Sunday School of the First Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, where she was adored.

General Harrison, in those years was an elder in the church and taught the men’s Bible Class.   As a young girl, Mrs. Harrison had taught a class of younger girls in the Sunday School of the Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Ohio, in which her father, Rev. John Witherspoon Scott, President and founder of Oxford Female College frequently preached.   After her graduation from the College, she was a teacher in it until she married Benjamin Harrison just after he graduated from Miami University in that town.

Her Number Was Seven

Mrs. Harrison’s father, who was deeply interested in the establishment of such a society, had some difficulty in tracing the exact ancestor who would make her eligible for membership.   It was but a comparatively few hours before the opening session of the organizing meeting of the charter members that they obtained the information that her great-grandfather, John Scott, was commissary general of the Pennsylvania Lines, and she became No. 7 in the National Society, and was duly elected President General.   Another ancestor who figured in the Revolution was Robert Scott, brother of John Scott, who went in as a sergeant, and traces of him were lost.

First Continental Congress

The first Continental Congress was held in the Universalist Church of Our Father, a small edifice at the corner of Thirteenth and L Streets, February 22, 1892.   Then the society grew larger and the Congresses were held in the Old Columbia Theater, which had been Metzerott’s Music Hall.   And again the Congress out grew its meeting place and Albaugh’s Grand Opera House, afterwards, Poli’s Theater, became the scene of the Congresses until 1905, when the Daughters’ own building, Memorial Continental Hall, was used for the first time, one of the most beautiful and significant buildings of the country.

Mrs. Harrison’s address at the opening of that first Continental Congress was much praised, the first such thing she had ever done.  It was read by Mrs. Henry M. Robert, Jr., then President General, on the occasion of the presentation and unveiling of the portrait of Mrs. Harrison, in the Harrison Memorial Home in Indianapolis, a gift of the D.A.R. Society in October 1939.  It is a copy of the portrait they presented to the White House many years ago.   It now hangs in the wide hall of the mansion in which she spent so many happy years.   It is an excellent copy made by a young artist of Indianapolis, Randolph Coats.   Mrs. Harrison’s illness became grave a short time after the close of the first Congress over which she had presided with much grace.  She died the following October.

Memories of Her Aunt

My first recollections of my father’s sister are as the sprightly, gracious hostess of the quaint, cozy, and very pretty cottage on North Alabama Street in Indianapolis, where the family lived when their children were small.   It was a story and a half cottage with a lovely yard which Mrs. Harrison always had full of flowers.  An ample back yard had a chicken yard, stable yard, and small stable.  Their first home there after they moved from Cincinnati, where they lived probably two years after their marriage, was a much smaller house on Vermont Street near Alabama.  A familiar sight was the future First Lady of the Land in that chicken yard.  The chickens all knew her, flocked about her, jumped upon her and ate out of her hand.   And how she loved it!  There always were several pet chickens, always a “Speckles” and a “Brownie,” and when there were newly hatched chicks, they were as tenderly cared for as though they were human.  Always too there was a pet kitten or cat, for Mrs. Harrison was a lover of animals.

A little later on when a little more prosperity came their way, they had a horse, and a carriage with two seats.   The future First Lady was the first friend of the horse and she learned to “hitch up” and to drive him   For many years before she came to Washington as a senatorial hostess, Mrs. Harrison was a familiar sight in her home town, in the two seated carriage driving the sturdy horse, on her daily rounds of charity and church work and her housekeeping duties.   She usually wound up at her husband’s office, where he joined her to go home.   She always relinquished the driver’s seat, for she never drove when he was in the carriage.   They kept no coachman until after they were established in their newly built home, on Delaware Street which now is the “President Harrison Memorial Home.”

Enjoyed Harmless Jokes

Caroline Scott Harrison was a light hearted, bright, and happy woman who could always make the best of things no matter how wrong they went.  She was very sympathetic and very strong in her likes and dislikes.   She had the keenest sense of humor and a practical joke was the delight of her life.   Many a one did she play on members of her family and her close friends.   There was but one exception, her husband.   I never knew or heard of her playing one on him.   He had, however, a sense of humor and enjoyed her jokes, but he had a certain sternness that would discourage very definitely any such personal pranks.

Parents Were Teachers

Mrs. Harrison’s mother was Miss Mary Neal of Titusville, PA, a young teacher in a girl’s school in Pleasantville, Ohio, when she met and married young John Witherspoon Scott, a professor in the school.  It was from her that her daughter, Caroline inherited her talent in music, for Mrs. Harrison was a good pianist and had a sweet voice for singing, although she did not cultivate it to any extend.   She played the hymns and Sunday School songs for her infant class.   Also, she played all kinds of children’s songs and dances at home, for her children and the other children of her connection.  One of her chief delights, when her children were small, was to sit at her piano and direct their singing of childish songs, Sunday School, and otherwise, to her accompaniments.   Then she would play some dance music, taking down from a cabinet several exquisite, imported little figures in dance costumes, which she placed upon the strings of the old fashioned square piano.   She enjoyed the little figures in their dainty dances, and quite as much, enjoyed the delight of her children and their little cousins, of whom I was one, frequently.   When Mrs. Harrison’s mother came to visit her, it was she who did the playing and often sang fascinating little children’s songs for them, always finishing with the dancing of the exquisite little figures on the strings.

Soon after the family became settled in their stately new home, which they built, Mrs. Harrison took up the gentle art of lace making.  She was of the first in that section to pick up that fad and added it to her many other accomplishments.   Samples of this Honiton lace are now in the Harrison Memorial Home where I sent them, as she taught me this art and gave me several pieces of her work.  During these house of work, she impressed me with some of the family history, which she impressed her own children with, and told us of her father’s family.   She seemed to know little of her mother’s family, except that the latter’s father was a bank from England.   She was proud of the fact that through the first John Scot and his wife, Jane Mitchell, who came from Scotland about 1718 they were descended from the Earl of Buccleuch for whom the Buccleuch Park in New Jersey was named by some of his descendants.

Admired Her Oil Paintings

Mrs. Harrison’s oil paintings lined the walls of their home in Indianapolis, especially the hunting scenes, which particularly pleased her husband.   General Harrison was a devotee of the hunt.   His recreations were usually hunting trips, shooting quail and duck.  Several of these paintings are still on the walls of the Memorial Home.   Later on Mrs. Harrison took up watercolor painting and then china painting.  In the last named she made quite a name for herself.   She exhibited her work several different years in the Indiana Exposition and two different years she carried off first prizes.  When the family came to the White House, Mrs. Harrison fitted up a studio in the attic, which was then just a storage place.  This space is now used for sleeping and sitting quarters for guests, with a number of baths.   There she spent many happy hours with her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Russell B. Harrison, the daughter of the then Senator Alvin Saunders of Nebraska, who was herself a gifted artist.  She did much lovely china painting working there along with her husband’s mother.

Leader in Washington Church Work

During her early days in the White House, Caroline Scott Harrison was active in church and charity work here, being on the board of the Garfield Hospital and in several organizations in the Church of the Covenant where they attended services.   Also, she kept up with her duties as First Lady, and President of the new Society of the D.A.R.   She did many little studies of wild and other flowers during these days, and orchids very particularly intrigued her.   Orchids were not known in Indiana at that time, and she painted at least one lovely study of orchids in that White House studio which now hangs on the wall of the first floor hall of the Harrison Memorial Home, surrounded by the many little flower studies.  The last named were found in a portfolio in one of the trunks recently sent to the Home by Mr. James Robert McKee, Mrs. Harrison’s son-in-law.   They had been for many years in the attic of his home, Berkeley Lodge in Greenwich, Connecticut.   Her maid packed them in the White House, with Mrs. Harrison’s clothes and belongings, after her death, Josephine Kneipp, of Indianapolis who went there with the family.  The trunks had never been touched in those 50 odd years, until they were opened recently at the House.   And Josephine was present at the opening.

They were all in perfect condition, due to the skillful packing.  Among them, are the gowns worn by the first President General at the opening session of the first Continental Congress over which she presided; the one she wore at the great reception given a year before b Mrs. William D. Cabell, Vice President General, and the one she wore at her own reception in the White house for the Society, during that first Congress.   Innumerable other gowns, hats, and accessories are in the collection which will be placed in glass show cases in an upstairs bed-room, which will be the main room of the Harrison Museum, now being arranged by Mr. Bernard Batty, executive trustee of the Jordan Foundation which owns the building, and his able assistant, Mrs. Ruth Woodworth, hostess.

Mrs. Harrison Disliked Pearls

Mrs. Harrison and her daughter never wore décolleté evening gowns in those days.  The necklines were cut low, but always filled in with lovely lace.   They both wore little jewelry and Mrs. Harrison had a strong superstition against pearls and never had them.   The lovely portrait of her presented to the White House by the D.A.R., painted by Daniel Huntington shows her solitaire earrings and her necklace as pearls, when they were really very beautiful diamonds.

When Benjamin Harrison and his family took possession of the White House, they realized how inadequate the beautiful old house was for even a moderately large family. There were but the two floors with the basement kitchen and pantries that were quite antique, no wings and the executive offices of the East Room.  Agitation soon arose over building a new White House for the living quarters of the Presidential family, either attached to the present edifice, or an entirely new building further up town, leaving the present building for offices only.  Mrs. Harrison was keenly interest in that and set to work on plans, both for the new home, and for additions to the White House.   She had collaborating with her the late Mr. Frederick D. Owen, an architect and an artist, a cousin of the late Mrs. John B. Henderson, too well known to describe here.  They evolved a beautiful set of plans for both projects, the site for the new house being spoken of as perhaps the Soldiers’ Home where there already was a summer White House which had been occupied during the hot months by General Grant, President Lincoln, and President Johnson; and for a few months in the first summer of his administration, and before his marriage, by President Cleveland.

The plans of Mrs. Harrison and Mr. Owen were beautiful, practical, and workable.  They were widely published and elicited enthusiasm everywhere.   But, Congress would have none of it.   Improvements and renovations of the old mansion were authorized.   So, Mrs. Harrison set about to have necessary improvements made especially in the kitchen and pantries.   The outstanding improvement was the installation of electricity.  The much beloved “Ike” Hoover was delegated to do the work in the house, being a skilled electrician in his youth.  When the work was all done, the family was so afraid of the new fangled lights that the President had Mr. Hoover retained and placed on the staff of the White House just to handle the lights.   He was so efficient and useful that he stayed on until his death a few years ago, being promoted steadily until he was in charge of the house and of the current family.

Painted White House China

Another one of Mrs. Harrison’s White House hobbies, as it might be called was her effort to have special china, with appropriate design made for the White house, to be used permanently and exclusively in the White House.   The custom had always been for an incoming Presidential family to select their own china that used by the predecessors being sold or given away, which Mrs. Harrison considered, rightfully, an unwarranted extravagance.   She then made a beautiful design for china, painted a great deal of it herself and it was installed at the Harrison administration china.

The “service” plates had a broad rim of the richest, dark blue over which was delicately traced in gold, spray of golden-rod, and ears of corn, significant of this country.  In the center was the seal of the United States also in gold, and a row of stars close around the blue rim.   The other plates had a narrower blue rim with an outside edge of white, over which there was a narrower design of the golden-rod and corn.  The stars were around the blue and the seal was in the center.  This design, she sincerely hoped would be adopted by Congress, for the White House exclusively.   But, again her hopes was futile, so the scrapping of the china of each administration goes on.  She also tried to have golden-rod adopted formally as the national flower, but to no avail.

Caroline Scott Harrison was a great and intelligent reader and particularly fond of Shakespeare.  She leaned strongly to the theory that Bacon was the real writer of Shakespeare’s works.   This theory was introduced into this country, probably by Judge Nathaniel Holmes of California, in the eighties (1800s).   It spread rapidly over the country and was widely discussed in the newspapers.

Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison was the third descendant of that first John Scott who came to this country from Scotland about 1718, to win the distinction of becoming the First Lady of This Land.  The other two were Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes and Mrs. William Howard Taft.   It was through the son of the first John Scott, who also was the John Scott, that Mrs. Harrison became eligible for membership in the Society of the D.A.R.  Mrs. Hayes and Mrs. Taft came down from the first John Scott also through their fathers.  Mrs. Hayes, the former Lucy Webb was the daughter of Dr. James Webb of Ohio, descended from Matthew Scott, youngest brother of Mrs. Harrison’s great-grandfather.   Mrs. Taft, the former Miss Helen Herron, daughter of Judge William Herron also of Ohio came down from another brother of that John Scott.