When Helena Knerr Nichols died in 1875, Thomas A. Nichols was left to raise three children: Matthew 18, Bertha 13, and Charles 10. They were old enough to help care for themselves. When Lillian Bull Nichols died in 1888, 64-year old Thomas had three very young children, Mary 6, Florence 4, and Howard 2. What happened to these orphans when Thomas passed away in 1895? Did their extended family readily jump in and embrace their care? Were they parceled out to the various relatives?
Mary Watson Nichols, known as “Mame”, must have keenly felt the loss of both her parents at 13. Fortunately for her, her maternal aunt, Mary Bull, and maternal uncle, Jonathan Bull agreed to act as her guardians. Mary and Jonathan Bull lived a few blocks away from one another in Port Carbon. In July 1895, they signed a Guardian’s Bond agreeing to pay the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania $200 for the care of Mame with accountability to the Orphan’s Court of the County of Schuylkill, PA.
Five years later in 1900, 18-year-old Mame resided in Port Carbon with her Aunt Mary and a second maternal uncle, George Bull. The two siblings shared a home, with Mary Bull listed as the head of household, while George earned wages as a blacksmith at a machine shop. However, there was an extra, unexpected member of the family listed in the 1900 census, a 9-month-old daughter, Lillian Cake, Mame Nichol’s daughter. No further information is known about the father of Lillian, or “Lill” as she was affectionately called.
In 1906, Mame wed Leonard Dietsche, a German immigrant, at the Port Carbon Methodist Church. Leonard arrived in the United States in 1880 and found work with the railroad industry. By 1907, the Dietsche’s had their first daughter, Martha Elizabeth. A son, Thomas Nichols Dietsche, followed seven years later in 1914. Another daughter, Mary Birginis, also nicknamed “Mame”, was born in 1920.
In 1930, while Mame maintained their rented home at 13 Spruce Street, Port Carbon, Leonard supported the family as a car repairman for the state railroad. He maintained his job with the railroad industry until he retired. Sixteen years older than his wife, Leonard retired in the late 1930’s.
In 1940, Mame suffered the loss of her 73-year-old husband, Leonard, who died from a heart attack. At the time of his death on March 22, 1940, Leonard and Mame were living with their son, Thomas. Mame continued to live with Thomas, his wife Anna, and their two sons, Thomas and John, on Market Street, Port Carbon for several years. During WWII, the family moved to Warren, Ohio where Thomas transferred to work at the Ravenna, Ohio Arsenal. Mame accompanied them and remained there until her death on October 12, 1966 at age 84. Both Mame and Leonard are buried in Port Carbon, PA.
Mame’s younger sister, 11- year old Florence Ackley Nichols was also underage when Thomas Nichols died. However, there were no Orphan’s Court records for her at the county courthouse in Pottsville. The family story is she went to live with her older half-brother Charles in Pittsburg. A 1900 census indicates Florence moved to New Jersey where her older half-sister Bertha Nichols Donaldson lived with her husband and children in Trenton, New Jersey. The Donaldsons, married 14 years, had 3 children and boarded with a middle-aged couple and their house servant. There was likely no room for an extra person in that house. Florence A. Nichols, age 16, boarded with an older couple in Franklin, Somerset, New Jersey.Trenton and Franklin were only 27 miles apart, so the two sisters were not separated by a great distance. During the 19th century 70 percent of the U.S. population boarded at some point, so it was not uncommon for families or single people to board when they could not afford their own home. Florence remained in New Jersey and supposedly never married, but had one daughter. Although no exact date is known, Florence died about 1962.
Like Florence, Howard Ransloe Nichols may have gone to live with his older half-brother. Perhaps Charles Knerr Nichols felt compassion for his younger brother Howard. Charles was 10 when his mother died, and Howard was orphaned at 10. Initially, Charles probably first welcomed the lad to his home in Pittsburg, where he lived with his wife Elizabeth. The rumor in the Dietsche family was that Howard was a “difficult” child. He probably struggled with the loss of both of his parents and being shuffled about the last years of his father’s life.
The first record for Howard is in the 1900 census when he was 15. He lived at the Soldiers Orphan’s Industrial School in Franklin County, PA and was one of the 172 boys between 12-15. The school was 103 miles from Port Carbon where his sister Mame lived with their aunt and uncle.
The Soldiers Orphan’s Industrial School was originally established in 1863 by then governor, Andrew Curtin. After two orphaned children knocked on his door and begged for food, the Governor and his wife saw the need to establish a home for orphaned children from the Civil War. Governor Curtin set up 70 schools across the state of PA, but as the children grew up and graduated the need for so many schools diminished. In 1895, all the schools closed, except for one, the Soldiers Orphan’s Industrial School in Scotland, Franklin, PA, the very school where Howard Nichols went to live. In 1895, there were about 300 students, grades 3-12. The school was later renamed the Scotland School for Veteran’s Children. It continued to serve as a state school for veteran’s children until 2009 when it closed for lack of funding.
It is not known how many years Howard attended the Scotland School for Veteran’s children, nor what he did immediately after he left school. At age 16, he had to leave the school, as did all the students shortly after their 16th birthday. Where did Howard go in 1901, and what kind of work did he find? Did he maintain contact with his siblings and his extended family?
By 1908, at age 23, Howard had married 19-year-old Mathilda. “Tillie” was the daughter of German/Swiss immigrants. The couple rented a home at 421 First Ave, Tarentum, PA. Tillie stayed at home to care for their firstborn, Isabelle. A second child, Thomas, arrived in 1911. Howard worked as a “roller” at a steel mill, a strenuous job he labored at for about 20 years. Although short in stature, 5’5”, Thomas was sturdy.
The following is a description by James J. Davis who worked in the steel mill in 1922 at age 12:
“In this mill there is a constant din by day and night. Patches of white heat glare from the opened furnace doors like the teeth of some great dark, dingy devil grinning across the smoky vapors of the Pit. Half naked, soot-smeared fellows fight the furnace hearths with hooks, rabbles, and paddles. Their scowling faces are lit with fire, like sailors manning their guns in a night fight when a blazing fire-ship is bearing down upon them. The sweat runs down their backs and arms and glistens in the changing lights. Brilliant blues and rays of green and bronze come from the coruscating metal, molten yet crystallizing into white-hot frost within the furnace puddle. Flaming balls of woolly iron are pulled from the oven doors, flung on a two-wheeled serving tray, and rushed sputtering and flamboyant to the hungry mouth of the machine, which rolls them upon its tongue and squeezes them in its jaw like a cow mulling over her cud. The molten slag runs down red-hot from the jaws of this squeezer and makes a luminous rivulet on the floor like the water from the rubber rollers when a washer-woman wrings out the saturated clothes. Squeezed dry of its luminous lava, the white-hot sponge is drawn with tongs to the waiting rollers –whirling anvils that beat it into the shape they will. Everywhere are hurrying men, whirring flywheels, moving levers of steam engines and the drum-like roar of the rolling machines, while here and there the fruits of this toil are seen as three or four fiery serpents shoot forth from different trains of rollers, and are carried away, wrought iron fit for bridging the creek, shoeing the mule and hooping the barrel that brings the farmers apples into town.” The Iron Puddler: My Life in the Rolling Milles and What Came of it, 1922
In 1940, at age 55, Howard no longer toiled at the steel mill but worked as a laborer for the state highway. By 1942, Howard and Tillie moved 23 miles from Tarentum to Butler, PA, where Howard worked at a high school as a janitor and night watchman. Twelve years later on June 16, 1952, Howard Ransloe Nichols died at age 66, in Butler, PA from a heart attack. His wife Tillie lived another 39 years and died at 101.
Mame, Florence, and Howard Nichols faced and overcame a number of obstacles as orphaned children. They demonstrated their love and devotion for their father, Thomas Ackley Nichols, by carrying on his name for 2 more generations. Three grandsons, and one great-grandson were named “Thomas”. The three siblings maintained contact with one another. Around 1950 they reunited in Ohio where they had a group photograph taken, featured in this article. The blossoming flowers and summer dresses show the warm summer temperatures. Howard appears to have something to say, while Mame looks directly ahead, her arm around Howard’s shoulder. Florence’s expression is rather sad and weary . It isn’t known if all 6 siblings remained in touch with another or if they were ever photographed together as a family. It is unlikely since the distance between 4 families in 4 states, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, was so great.
This story would not be complete without expressing my gratitude to Paul Ditchey, 3x great-grandson of Thomas and Lillian Bull Nichols. He contributed information and photos that assisted my research and filled in missing pieces of the puzzle, and fulfilled my wish to connect with a descendant of Thomas A. Nichols and to share information. I think Thomas would be pleased that great-grandchildren from each of his two wives have united to share his story.
© 2015 copyright Kendra Hopp Schmidt. All rights reserved.
Name: Thomas Ackley Nichols
Parents: Matthias Nichols and Sarah Ackley?
Spouse: Helena Knerr and Lillian Watson Bull
Children: John, Bertha, Charles and Mary, Florence, Howard
Relationship to Kendra: 3rd great grandfather
- Thomas Ackley Nichols
- John Mathews Nichols
- Mabel Elvina Nichols Hyde
- John Frederick Hyde Jr.
- Jean Hyde Hopp Eichorn