The Lillibridges: From Prairie Grass to Cream

Although there had been settlers in the area since the 1830s, the Lillibridges were part of an immense rush of newcomers to the Iowa territory during the 1850s.

Adeline Young Lillibridge holding her infant son, Clair. Tintype, 1876. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Today, the prairies of Iowa are all but gone—their restoration the scheme of environmentalists and concerned volunteers. But when these great grass seas last existed, it was the grandparents of the baby above, Clair Miles Lillibridge, who arrived to radically reshape them.

Clair’s father Leverett Lillibridge, born 25 June, 1851, was the son of John Lillibridge (b. 1816) and Mary Rexford (b. 1815), who married in Lebanon, Madison County, New York, 25 May, 1836, and had seven children, of which Leverett was the fourth. The family went west to what became the town of Manchester, Delaware County, Iowa, almost a decade before Leverett’s birth in 1851. The namesake of John and Mary’s son was his maternal grandfather, early settler Leverett Rexford, who in 1841, according to The History of Delware County, Iowa and Its People, “built a log cabin near the Bailey home, which was later inhabited by John Lillibridge.”

Although there had been settlers in the area since the 1830s, the Lillibridges were part of an immense rush of newcomers to the territory during the 1850s. “Families camped at the Mississippi, waiting their turn for ferryboats to the other side. In only a few years these settlers would turn the forests and prairies into plowed fields,” notes Iowa Public Television. “Farmers arriving from the many different regions of the United States brought their special agriculture with them. Those from New England and New York carried the seeds for plum, apple and pear trees. Kentuckians brought their knowledge of improved seed and livestock breeding. From Pennsylvania and Ohio fine flocks of sheep came to graze in the dry pastures of southern Iowa.”

One harrowing story of the early years of Manchester took place when Leverett Lillibridge was two. “Jane and Eliza Scott, whose home was near Delhi…in the spring of 1853, attempted to ford Spring Branch, a mile above Bailey’s, but the water was so high that their horse and wagon were swept [away] and the horse was drowned. The current carried one of the girls safely to shore, but the other was drawn into the eddy but was finally rescued by her sister, who succeeded in reaching her with a pole and drawing her to shore. One of the girls reached Bailey’s cabin, but was so exhausted she could not for some time explain the situation. As soon as she made herself understood, Mrs. Bailey left her and hastened to the locality where the other girl was expected to be found. On her way she met John Lillibridge and they together carried the insensible girl from where they found her to Mr. Lillibridge’s horse and placing the limp body on the animal’s back, she was conveyed to the Bailey home, where both the unfortunate girls were given every attention.”

Clair’s mother was purposely (albeit unsuccessfully) hidden by the tintype’s decorative paper sleeve. Today, these are known as “Hidden Mother” images. Parents often brought screamers and weepers to the photo studio who only wanted the safety of known arms. To keep babies calmer, photographers sat them on their draped mothers’ laps. Thusly seated, plump little Clair appears to have cared not in the least about being photographed.

Leverett married Adeline Arnelia Young on 23 May, 1869, in Manchester. Adeline was born 11 March, 1853, in Youngstown, Trumbull County, Ohio, to Frederick Young and Harriet Pretzman. The young couple lived with Leverett’s parents at the time of the 1870 census, with Adeline heavily pregnant. Their daughter, Ollie, arrived 3 June, but perished 13 August and was buried on Sands Farm, in what is now known as the Lillibridge Cemetery. Little Ollie’s maternal grandfather, Frederick Young, would join him there 17 March, 1885; his paternal grandfather, the intrepid John, on 1 November, 1892; and his paternal grandmother Mary on 18 February, 1893. After Ollie’s loss, four surviving children followed: Jay L., born in July 1871; May F., born in March 1873; Clair (also frequently spelled Clare), born 5 September, 1875; and finally Charles Bradley born in October 1881.

The 1880 census pinpointed the family farming in Milo, about 185 miles southwest of Manchester in Warren County. We don’t know whether this small railroad-nurtured town was the scene of a little, much, or most of Clair’s childhood and adolescence because the 1890 U.S. census was destroyed by fire, leaving his life a blank slate from the age of four until early 1900, when he was approaching 25 and already a husband and father. We can describe Clair’s adult appearance generally, thanks to his later World War I registration card: He was of medium build and height, with blue eyes and dark hair.

In 1900, Clair’s parents were enumerated in the town of Delaware, Delaware County, while Clair was domiciled about 35 miles away, in Adams Township, working as a grocer, having taken the decision not adopt agriculture as a career. Two years earlier, Clair married Bertha F. Theel, born in 1876 in Berlin, Germany. Bertha arrived in the United States in 1882 after sailing with her mother and siblings from Hamburg on the ship Bohemia, arriving in New York 11 September, 1882.

Obituary of Clair’s father, Leverett Lillibridge, Manchester Democrat-Radio, 3 December, 1913.

Clair and Bertha had a son, Leverett J., born in September 1899. Percy R. followed in 1901, then a daughter, Axie Lorraine, in 1905, and a son, Harry Bradley, in 1908. Whilst his family expanded in Iowa, his parents and two of his brothers succumbed to wanderlust and migrated to the tiny enclave of Columbia, South Dakota. Leverett died there in late 1913—his body returned to Clair in Manchester for burial.

The town paper, the Democrat-Radio, opened a few little spy holes on the Lillibridges’ lives: On 18 February, 1914, the Charity Circle met at the Lillibridge house with Bertha as hostess; 10 March, 1915, Clair “went to Mason City Tuesday afternoon to attend the convention of creamery men”—Clair worked for Bourne & Farrand, a New York-based egg, milk, and cheese wholesaler; 28 November, 1917, Clair and Bertha and the children were the guests of their cousin Mrs. C. M. Grommon.

Clair and Bertha’s eldest, Leverett, served in the U.S. Navy during World War I. According to the 15 January, 1919, Democrat-Radio, “Leverett Lillibridge, who enlisted in the Navy last summer, has been spending a few days with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Clair Lillibridge. The young sailor enlisted…for a term of four years and likes the life of a seaman very much.” His military records show he entered service 10 January, 1918, and was released 3 September, 1920.

A panoramic series of Manchester, Iowa, taken in 1908. Courtesy Library of Congress.

In early October 1919, Clair and his surviving siblings traveled to Columbia, South Dakota, to attend his brother Jay’s funeral after he passed away at home on 29 September. “Mr. Lillibridge had not been in the best of health for some time, but his condition was not considered serious until about two weeks before his death, when complications developed that took his strength,” the 8 October Democrat-Radio noted. “Mr. Lillibridge’s death brings a particular sadness to the family. He was an industrious man in the best of years, and had only a short time ago completed a fine country home his farm of 440 acres. He was a kind and devoted husband [to wife Cora Given whom he married in 1898] and father and in his passing his family suffers and irreparable loss.”

As enumerated in the 1920 Census, the family lived at 445 South Brewer Street, which still exists today—small house in a large yard on a quiet, open road. Clair worked as solicitor for a produce company. Leverett was safely home from the sea and the war, but without employ; Percy had a position as a bank bookkeeper. The next year, in March 1921, Clair ran without opposition for Manchester councilman-at-large. This was the high-water mark of his life.

Between the censuses, son Leverett married Rose Mary Seigel (1897–1983) on 5 May, 1924. The 1930 Census placed them in Clarion, Iowa, he was a manager for a produce firm. At that date the couple had three daughters: Marjory Ann (1925-2000); June Rose (b. 1929), and Doris Mae (b. 1930). A son, William Leverett (1936-2001), arrived before the next census, which placed the family in New Hampton, Iowa. Leverett died 4 November, 1980, and is buried in New Hampton’s Calvary Cemetery. His wife Rose joined him in 1983.

The south side of East Main Street, Manchester, Iowa, in the early 1920s. Real photo postcard. To read a prodigious and wry history of Manchester, peruse Marie A. Schneider’s Manchester’s First Hundred Years, published in 1967 by the Manchester Centennial Committee.

On 4 October, 1930, Percy married Elsie Bertha Minnie Wendt who had been born in nearby Dehli Township, in 1910. She was the daughter of Frederick Karl Wendt, Jr. (1885-1965), and Ida Bertha Wilhimene Stock (1883-1930). Elsie had a younger sister, Mildred Emma Marie Wendt (1913–1989), who wed Percy’s brother Bradley.

Bradley was an intelligent man. He’d been noted in October 1921 as a freshman with grades all above the 90th percentile at Manchester High School (as had his sister, Axie, then a junior). He had risen to the post of deputy treasurer, Delaware County, in 1940. When the second World War, he served in the U.S. Army from July 1943 to September 1945. For most of that he was stationed outside of the United States, working for the Army Finance Distribution Service.

The Carrol Daily Times Harold of 20 April, 1949, reported that an Earlville, Iowa, implement store had been destroyed by fire the previous day, causing $50,000 in damages. “The store, operated by Maynard Wendt and H. Bradley Lillibridge was housed in a two-story frame building. The cause of the fire was blamed on a welder’s spark.” Amongst the losses were “new refrigerators, deep freeze units and farm machinery.”

Bradley and his wife had no children and lived in Manchester all their lives. Harry died 16 January, 1986; Mildred 16 April, 1989. The are buried in Oakland Cemetery, Manchester.

Iowa State Teachers College yearbook, 1925.

Axie Lillibridge graduated from Manchester High school, where she played on the basketball team, then attended Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls. In 1930, Axie was enumerated as public school teacher in Madison, Iowa, where she rented a room at 106 Pine Street. By 1934, Axie had gone west, establishing herself in San Pedro as a bookkeeper. Our last census glimpse in 1940 was in Los Angeles at 352 West Tenth Street. She never married and died in that city 14 April, 1988.

Clair lived to age 93, dying in Manchester in February 1968. Bertha had passed away ten years earlier, in 1958. A short obituary for Clair appeared in the Waterloo Daily Currier on 12 February: “Clair M. Lillibridge died early Sunday Morning at a Manchester nursing home because of complications due to age.” He was buried beside his wife in Oakland Cemetery in the green turf that has long replaced the grassland. Ω

The grave marker of Clair and Bertha Lillibridge at Oakland Cemetery. Although the majority of documents made during his life use the spelling Clair, his stone does not. Photo by Digital Magic Photography.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

5 thoughts on “The Lillibridges: From Prairie Grass to Cream”

  1. I love the part of this story (attached to the photo) about the “Hidden Mother” photography, so that the babies who cried would behave! Although you have taught me many things about early photography, I did not know about this! Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that fact too, makes so much sense! odd though that they didn’t obscure her face more, the effect is rather eerie. In the other hidden mother images is this also the case?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You see all sorts of curious ways of disguising the mother–everything from a straight blanket over the head to scratching out her face later on. I think the weirdness of it is why these images are now so popular and rising startlingly in price, too. I own a few more that I will feature at some point soon, but if you google hidden mother images, you will see many interesting examples.


    2. You will notice that when the tintype is in the paper mat the face is mostly covered. I joke that I am death to paper mats. As soon as I get a matted tintype of a baby I split the mat to see if there is a hidden helper. Often the face is scratched out even though it did not show in the mat. That tells me that the adult holding the baby is not the mother but the photographer’s lady assistant.

      Liked by 1 person

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