A Tale of Three Orphans

Mame, Howard and Florence Nichols, 1950's Ohio, photograph courtesy of Paul Ditchey, great-grandson of Mary "Mame' Nichols  Dietsche

Mary, Howard and Florence Nichols, 1950’s Ohio, in front of the home of Mame’s son, Thomas Ditchey – photograph courtesy of Paul Ditchey, great-grandson of Mary “Mame’ Nichols Dietsche.

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 guardian.  Mary and Jonathan Bull lived a few blocks away 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, an extra, unexpected member of the family listed in the 1900 census was 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 in the railroad industry. By 1907, the Dietsches 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 held his job in the railroad industry until he retired. Sixteen years older than his wife, Leonard retired in the late 1930s.

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 Trenton, New Jersey, where her older half-sister Bertha Nichols Donaldson lived. The Donaldsons who had been married for14 years, had 3 children, and boarded with a middle-aged couple and their house servant.  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 homes.

Florence remained in New Jersey, where she married John Francis Snyder (1883-1949) in 1913. They had one daughter, Anna Ayres Snyder (1914-1993). John worked at American Cyanamid as a chemical sampler. After he died in 1949, Florence moved 36 miles from Franklin to Bloomfield, New Jersey.

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 was 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 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 same 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 served as a state school for veteran’s children until 2009, when it closed for lack of funding.

Soldier's Orphan's Industrial School, Scotland, PA. Photograph courtesy of http://goose.ycp.edu/~ttaylor/images/laughlin/primary_series/105_scotland.jpg

Soldier’s Orphan’s Industrial School, Scotland, PA. Photograph courtesy of http://goose.ycp.edu/~ttaylor/images/laughlin/primary_series/105_scotland.jpg

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 operating 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 bright rivulet on the floor like the water from the rubber rollers when a washer-woman wrings out the saturated clothes. Squeezed dry of its glowing 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. At the same time, 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. 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 several 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. While Mame looks directly ahead, Howard appears to have something to say, 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 one 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 excellent.

Without expressing my gratitude to Paul Ditchey, 3x great-grandson of Thomas and Lillian Bull Nichols, this story would not be complete. He contributed information and photos that assisted my research and filled in missing pieces of the puzzle. He fulfilled my wish to connect with a descendant of Thomas A. Nichols and share information. I think Thomas would be pleased that great-grandchildren from his two wives have united to share his story.

© 2015 copyright Kendra Hopp Schmidt. All rights reserved.


Genealogy Sketch

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

  1. Thomas Ackley Nichols
  2. John Mathews Nichols
  3. Mabel Elvina Nichols Hyde
  4. John Frederick Hyde Jr.
  5. Jean Hyde Hopp Eichorn
  6. Kendra

About treeklimber

An interest in history and travel lends itself to a passion for genealogy. The more I research, the more I realize there is to discover. It is a never-ending puzzle.
This entry was posted in Biographies, My Family Ancestry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Tale of Three Orphans

  1. ammoney97 says:

    Wow! The account of the steel mill is so very powerful! Imagine the toll it would take after years of such hard labour! It is amazing, the fortitude of our ancestors!


    • treeklimber says:

      I agree about their fortitude and enjoy researching and learning the contextual history surrounding each ancestor. I ponder if I would be able to endure what someone of them experienced and highly doubt it.


  2. Pingback: Recommended Reads | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

  3. Pingback: Recommended Reads | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

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