Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Helen, Part I: Beginnings

Helen Marie Timmons
New Paris, Indiana, 1935

Helen Marie Timmons arrived at about ten o'clock at night during a late winter blizzard on 12 February 1917 in rural Milford, Indiana. The sight of his new pink, wiggly, screaming little sister made seven-year-old Harold Timmons cry. How mad he was at his parents for bringing her out naked in a snowstorm!

Helen's parents were both forty years old at her birth and had just celebrated twenty years of married life together the previous November. William Armond Timmons and Addie May Nowels were products of farm families through and through, both of them having great-grandparents who settled in Jasper County, Indiana, in the 1830s and 1840s. Growing up in rural Rensselaer, Indiana, they were both surrounded by a plethora of aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins. 

Addie and William's courtship was unremarkable in the sense that it followed the norms of any young rural couple living in turn-of-the-century Indiana. On 27 August 1895, eighteen-year-old Addie was brazen enough to send William a letter:
"Mr. William Timmons, Sunday evening I told you I was not going to the Fair but I guess I will for all of the folks are going Thursday and I will not stay at home by myself for I would be [unreadable], so I thought I would tell you, as I promised you I would not go, but if you wanted to go Thursday afternoon come along, and I will go with you, that is if you want me to." 
"If you want to write me a note and send it by Charlie to-night, and let me know whether you will come or not, and if you do not come I will go with our folks, for I will not stay at home alone. Now Will, I will close hoping you will not think anything about me writing this to you for I thought it would be all right. I remain your dearest Friend. Addie." 
"P.S. Will, don't let your folks see this, and be sure and answer this to-night, and if we go let us not go till in the afternoon Thursday start about eleven o'clock."
By February of 1896, Addie's letters to Will were a bit more direct and intimate. "Mr. William Timmons" had been replaced by "Dear Willie." Although still signed "your dearest friend," these letters were "sealed with a k---." They would marry in Rensselaer, Indiana, on 15 November 1896. Addie had just turned twenty. William, three-and-a-half months her junior, was still nineteen.

Addie May Nowels
Likely taken in Rensselaer, Indiana, around the time
of her marriage in 1896

Like any newlywed farm couple, they immediately did what came naturally. They had children. Baby Ross Randolph Timmons made his appearance ten months after his parents' marriage while William worked on the Timmons family farm in Jordan Township, Jasper County, Indiana. This same land had been worked by his family for three previous generations. But after generations of farming the same fields and tilling the same dirt, these Timmons were becoming restless.

Little is known of William and Addie's movement after the turn of the century. They left the farm in Jasper County and had their second son, Merle Leon, in Chicago Heights in Cook County, Illinois, in 1901. Addie's older brother, Jesse Nowels, had moved there with his wife Grace a couple years previously and was working as a day laborer. Perhaps the allure of city life beckoned to the young couple, and they joined the young Nowels couple on East End Avenue. Grace had just had a baby boy, and Addie was pregnant. They could help each other while their husbands worked in the city. But the fit just wasn't right. Will and Addie returned to Jasper County long enough to bury an infant son in the cemetery near the Timmons family farm next to his great-grandfather who had died in 1888, and his great-great-grandfather who brought the name to Jasper County, Indiana, and had died in 1871.

But if the outskirts of Chicago didn't feel right to the young couple, neither did staying in rural Rensselaer. William's father, Enos Timmons, sold the long-held family farm in 1902 and moved eighty miles northeast to Plymouth, Indiana. Together with his son-in-law, George Brown, Enos opened Timmons Feed Barn on East LaPorte Street. This thriving community of nearly 3,600 people and the county seat of Marshall County, was perfect for Enos and his wife, Sarah Jane (Keister) Timmons. At fifty-seven and his grown children married and out of the house, Enos could retire from farming while still being healthy and capable enough to run the feed barn. His son, William Timmons and his young family followed.

LaPorte Street, Plymouth, Indiana, looking west from Michigan Street, c1908.
Timmons Feed barn would have been two blocks behind the viewer on the left.

But William and Addie (Nowels) Timmons still could not find the right place to plant their feet. The feed barn was his father's venture, and although he certainly spent days working there, living within the city was not his calling. He moved his family north of Plymouth to LaPaz, Indiana, and rented a farm there for a while. When Will's father became ill in 1910, they moved closer to his parental home just northwest of Plymouth, renting part of widow Mary Dreibelbis's farm. It was at this time that baby Harold Milton Timmons joined twelve-year-old Ross and nine-year-old Merle as the third boy in the family.

And so as time passed William and Addie realized that they were no longer a restless young couple in their twenties exploring new options, but now parents of three boys and well into their thirties. It became more and more apparent that Will's lot in life was farming like all the Timmons men before him. But unlike his ancestors, he would seldom stay rooted for long. Perhaps he liked tenant farming, and this allowed his restless nature to express itself outside the rigidity of farm life. New houses. New fields. New crops. New neighbors. New adventures. Or perhaps he just wasn't good at budgeting his funds and owning a farm was a goal forever just out of his reach. But not long after receiving a small amount of money from his father's estate in 1914 he rented a farm on the Elkhart County side of the Elkhart-Kosciusko County line in Jackson Township thirty-five miles east of Plymouth. Called "the old Zbinden farm" for the Swiss immigrant, John Christian Zbinden, who had improved the land and built the home on the property, this 160 acres of land was sandwiched between present-day County Roads 19 and 21.

Will and Addie settled into the routine and the daily demands of farm life, made easier by sons Ross and Merle who had quit school to work on the farm. Although Ross had progressed through three years of high school, Merle had enough of it by eighth grade. Their father needed them on the farm, so they worked by his side. Ross, nineteen, had his eye on a local Milford girl he had planned to marry. During the summer of 1916 when the Timmons men were hard at work assuring for a successful year's crop, and just before Addie's fortieth birthday, she received a surprise.

She was pregnant.

There is no way of knowing what emotions were generated by this revelation. Certainly pregnancies at Addie's age were not uncommon. But with nine years separating Merle and Harold, and now another six years since his birth, Addie had come to realize that she just did not get pregnant as easily as her peers. Perhaps it was her health or just bad timing. Perhaps there were unknown miscarriages in the long gaps between children. But with Margaret Sanger advocating for women to have the right to determine when to bear children and popularizing the new phrase "birth control" by 1914, perhaps Addie had made a conscious decision to limit the size of her family. Nonetheless, with two sons reaching manhood and ready to leave the nest and becoming settled that her child-bearing years were coming to a close, welcoming a newborn into the family was likely met with a flurry of emotions.

A Victorian postcard satirizes a woman's desire to abstain from childbirth.

But all these worries and concerns were put to rest as Addie held her very first baby girl on that cold, snowy February night in 1917. But if Addie had thoughts of ribbons and bows and frills and dresses, she would soon realize little baby Helen Marie Timmons was far too feisty for such things.


  1. my grandfather, as a young man, used to shoot pool in the ice cream shop building in the picture of Plymouth just a few years after the date listed.