Friday, August 27, 2010

Our Stories: A Short Biography of Blanche Stedman Keyes

Our Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group members come to know their ancestors well. This is the first in a series of accounts of ancestral lives.

By Susan King

In 1852, Millard Fillmore was President. The Missouri Compromise had been enacted a couple of years earlier, temporarily holding back the forces of civil war. Important as this development was, another event occurred in 1852 that overshadowed the Missouri Compromise for those of us who wouldn’t otherwise exist, that event being the birth of Blanche Stedman. Blanche, the oldest of five siblings, was born in Portland, Ohio, to Lyman Stedman Jr. and Emily Jewett Stedman .

Blanche’s father, Lyman Stedman, had attended Marietta College, a center of abolitionist sentiment. According to Blanche, who kept a diary later in life, her father had wanted to be a lawyer, but had had to give that up “to save his life” due to having “consumption.” So, he settled for rural life and became a farmer. The family eventually settled on an island in the Ohio River called Brown’s Island, in Hancock County, West Virginia, where they had a farm. Lyman was civically engaged, served in the West Virginia Legislature, and was asked to teach school, which he did.

Family legend has it that Blanche’s father participated in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves to escape up the Ohio River. Abraham Lincoln took office just a few weeks after Blanche’s eighth birthday. She was old enough to experience something of the Civil War. Lincoln was assassinated when Blanche was 12 years old. If she was personally affected by these events, we do not know; she did not allude to it in her diary. It seems that she had loving parents and was well cared for. As an older woman, she reflected that she had had a happy, carefree childhood, “knew only constant, tender sympathy” from her father, who was always a source of help for any problem. She said she wished she were “as sweet and beautiful” as her mother, and as “pure in mind” as her father.

Blanche graduated from Scio College, a seminary in Ohio; she was president of her class. Letters between Blanche and her future husband, John Keyes, show that she was already at Scio by age seventeen, which was in 1869. She chanced to meet John, who became a Methodist-Episcopal minister, at Scio, although he may not have been a student there at that time, being almost eight years her senior. Blanche seems to have been a religious idealist who felt the world would be a better place if everyone followed the Golden Rule.

On April 4, 1871, when she was barely 19 years old, she married Dr. John Riley Keyes, age 26, at her parents’ home on Brown’s Island, and so embarked upon the life of a minister’s wife. She remembered her wedding as a small but very happy affair. Her recurring diary entries on the anniversaries of her marriage are like a refrain, referring to the unseasonably warm weather. Though only April, “It was a summer-like day; the apple trees were in full bloom and the grass was green.” After a short honeymoon trip to Cleveland, the couple visited relatives, then made their way to Noblestown, Pennsylvania, where John had a new charge as minister. There they lived in a four-room house for which they paid $25 per month. Their income was $800 per year.

At age 20, Blanche had her first child, Laura. She had 5 children in all: Laura, Edith, Raymond, Paul, and Lucille, the last being born when Blanche was nearly 39. She seemed to find her boys more demanding than her girls. Her mother commented, “I never saw you nervous, until your boy came." Her first son, Raymond, was very strong and active from the beginning. At one month, he caught whooping cough; she feared it would kill him, but said he didn’t mind it much more than most children would mind a slight cold.

The family moved several times around Ohio as John was transferred to various churches. From 1875 to 1877, John served at Finley Church in Steubenville, Ohio, at $600 per year, and in 1877 went to a church in Bridgeport, Ohio. In 1880, they lived in Salem, Ohio. By 1900, they had moved to Cambridge, Ohio, and by 1910, had settled into a house in Cambridge, where Blanche and John remained for the rest of their days. I visited this house in 1961 when Lucille, the youngest and last of their children, still lived there. The house badly needed exterior paint at that time. A photo of the house was taken in 1988, after subsequent owners had refurbished it.

In late 1911, when she was 59, Blanche’s husband, John, died. By that time, only her youngest daughter, Lucille, and a friend and household helper, Annie Burke, lived in the home with her. John had asked Blanche to never sell the house, so that their adult children would always have a home to return to. Blanche honored that promise, but it was not easy. Money was scarce, and she would have preferred to move to a small home nearer to her sister, who was caring for their aging and quite debilitated father. She had a widow’s small pension from the church, as well as a small investment, which later was lost due to poor management by one of her sons-in-law. To make ends meet, she opened a boarding house for teachers.

In 1916, her house taxes were $100 per year. Coal was $2.50 per month, and water was $1.25. It was a struggle to maintain the house and buy necessities. As she put it, she had to turn every penny over and over in her hand -- there was “no margin." She paid a young man, who apparently was pretty badly off, for shoveling snow; for his work, she gave him a basket of potatoes, cornmeal, and bacon, and $.25, hoping he wouldn’t spend it on drink.

She mentioned that a roomer paid $3.50 a week. She tried to give her boarders variety in meals, with fruits, vegetables, and desserts. A sample meal was: potato soup, baked beans, cold meat, lettuce, plum butter, bread and butter, and prunes with whipped cream and nuts. She mentioned a breakfast consisting of cream of wheat with prunes and cream, fried mush, maple syrup, poached eggs on toast, and coffee. She kept chickens, remarking that her four chickens had given her 272 eggs. The family did their own sewing, cleaning, some painting, and minor plumbing, and Blanche was said to be cutting her own grass into her 80s. As she put it, “I have all of the physical culture any woman needs."

She was active in church activities and Jewell Band. In 1917, she remarked on the war and suffering in France, Belgium, Poland, and elsewhere, saying that “mothers’ hearts are breaking to see their sons go.” When she had a little extra money, she contributed $5 to a poor mother with children, and another $5 “to make the world go dry.”

In 1918, she had a telephone! By October 1918, the so-called Spanish Influenza was becoming serious. She mentioned that friends’ sons had died in military camps, and that “Cambridge is full of influenza.” Multiple city nurses had thrown up their hands and left due to being overwhelmed and having meager resources, although some doctors and nurses came from Columbus, Ohio, to care for the rural poor and coal miners. Blanche nursed people in several homes where entire families were down with the flu, but she never caught it.

In 1919, her older son, Raymond, a Naval Officer, died suddenly at sea, which was a big blow. She remained devoutly religious and did her best to try to accept this loss within a religious understanding.

In 1920, she was glad when Prohibition passed into law, and attended a city-wide church service to celebrate it. Church bells rang out at midnight all over her city of Cambridge, Ohio, to mark the beginning of prohibition, and she said, “Thank God.”

In 1926, money still tight, she complained about rich lawmakers, high salaries, and a President (Coolidge) who was unsympathetic in not helping the Civil War widows. She was such a widow, her husband having served in the Ohio Volunteers. Still, she counted her blessings. In 1929, at age 76, she credited her good health to resting in the afternoons and “learning to eat Battle Creek health foods and fruits and vegetables."

Although she lived for another eight years, the last entry in her diary was on March 25, 1929, when her oldest, and very dear grandchild, Charles Stewart, was killed in a the crash of a small plane. He had taken a plane ride from Columbus, Ohio, where he was a student at Ohio State, to New York, for the fun of it. The pilot got lost in fog and crashed. My grandmother, Bertha Keyes, lived in Columbus at the time, and had happened to see Charles in downtown Columbus. He had told her that he was going for a plane ride. Later, when Bertha heard the newspaper boys yelling the news, she was pretty sure it was about Charles and didn’t want to look at the newspaper.

Blanche died in 1937 at the age of 85. Incredibly, she had witnessed the Civil War and the Lincoln Administration, and had lived into the years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


Dumars, Virginia Keyes, and Garrett, Mary Keyes. Personal knowledge.

Keyes, Blanche Stedman. Unpublished journal.

Keyes, Blanche Stedman. 1869, 3 January. Unpublished letter to John Riley Keyes.

Keyes, John Riley. 1869, 6 May. Unpublished letter to Blanche Stedman Keyes.

Keyes, Robert. 1987, December. Unpublished letter.


Depiction of Lyman Stedman’s farm and residence found online at David Rumsey Historical Map Collection,, specific link for this image is: Image (lithograph) is part of composite cartographic image in "Residence of John A. Warden... Sewickley, Pa. (with) Farm and res. of Lyman Stedman...Brown’s Island, Hancock Co., West Va. (with) Bakery & Confectionary, J.M. Weber, Prop’r., ... East Liverpool, Ohio. (with) L.H. Oatman’s Saw & Planing Mills, Rochester, Beaver Co., Pa. (with) Residence of Benjamin Musgrave, Reminton, Beaver Co., Pa. (...compiled and drawn for the publishers of E.L. Hayes, assisted by E.F. Hayes, C.M. Beresford, assisted by S.A. Charpiot, F.L. Sanford, J.H. Sherman. Published by Titus, Simmons & Titus... Phila. 1877...Printed by H.J. Toudy & Co. ...Oldach & Mergenthaler Binders...) Author: Hayes, Eli L. Date 1877."

Photos are property of Susan King.

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