Abel Robert Thompson came into this world on the eve of another cold Pennsylvania winter. He was born after Thanksgiving, November 28, 1880, to proud parents, Robert Bruce Thompson and Lydia Ann Goodman both Pennsylvania natives living in Sheridan at the time. Carrying on the family tradition of honoring their ancestors, Abel bore the middle name Robert, his father’s name. Abel born during Thanksgiving season and married during the Spanish-American War. His mother passed when he was only two years old.
Abel’s family had a long and important history in the area where he was born and grew up. The town of Sheridan was laid by his grandfather, Alexander Thompson, on his former lands. Grandfather Alexander was the first to sell coal from the area, later known as the York Farm Colliery, and Alexander was the owner of Thompson’s Mill.
Just two days after the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day, February 16, 1885, an adorable baby girl was born to Howard Andrew Carson Hensel and Clara Matilda Updegrove. She shares the same birthday as our daughter Sophia and was baptized Augusta Mae on Easter Sunday of the same year, in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Gussie, as she was fondly known, grew up during the staunch age of Victorianism. She was able to attend school only until the fifth grade.
Abel was raised in Sheridan and since the Sheridan One-room school house wasn’t constructed until 1894, he probably attended Hand’s One-room school. Johannes Hand’s Reformed Church was a log structure, which doubled as a One-room school house in Tower City square (currently Trinity UCC) and was about one mile from Abel’s childhood home. He probably attended school until sixth grade or so and was fully literate. Gussie may have attended the First One-school house, a log structure near Rock Bank in Wiconisco that had opened in 1845. She was fully literate and although in school until age sixteen may have only completed fifth grade.
Gussie was raised in Dayton, Dauphin County, but when her parents moved across the county line, she met Sheridan native Abel. They were married and took out a mortgage on a home at Main Street, Sheridan. Even with Abel’s premature death, Gussie was able to maintain and own the home by 1920. For at least 40 years, she owned a home value at $3500 (1930) on State Road 199 (321/34 Main Street). Decades later she would retire to live on 300 block of West Grand Avenue, Tower City.
Being the oldest of eleven children, her formal education was cut short when it became necessary for Gussie to begin assisting in the household duties and the care of her siblings. With so many mouths to feed in the family, it was later necessary for her to become an additional bread winner—as a teen, she was employed as a domestic servant. However, it wouldn’t be long before she would move on to married life. Both were literate, able to read and write.
When Gussie met Abel, he was working as a general laborer. He was a tall, handsome man with dark hair, grey eyes, and a lean physique from the efforts of his occupation. Gussie never had eyes for any other man. She was a lovely June bride dressed in flowing white when the two married on June 15, 1904, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The new couple was soon expecting their first child. However, their joy turned tragic when their baby daughter, Virginia, died not long after she was born. A son, Wilbur Clark, came along in 1906, and a second son, Harper Bruce, was born in September of 1907.
Now with two children, Abel sought to better his financial position. His uncle, the Honorable Alexander F. Thompson, had been a member of the Dauphin County bar and served as a state senate member. These political connections may have led to Abel’s position as a probationer with the local courts.
By 1910, the couple had been married for six years and was well settled in Porter Township. Schuylkill County would soon be celebrating its centennial and nearby Pottsville was a growing mini-metropolis with ample educational opportunities for neighboring children. Abel had decided to return to the family roots and had been working as a coal miner for eight years. Perhaps the coal miners’ strike of 1902, which ended with shorter work days and 10% pay increases after President Theodore Roosevelt’s successful arbitration, played a role in Abel taking up mining.
Soon, he and Gussie had saved enough to purchase their own home. They were even able to rent space in the household to a small family. Gussie was expecting their fourth child, Abel Franklin, who would be born in October 1910. Their daughter, Lydia Mae, would follow as a Valentine’s present, in February four years later.
With a growing family, Abel sensed the increased responsibility that came with it. His job as a miner was fraught with peril—it was all too often he heard of explosions, cave-ins, or exposure to deadly mine gasses. These dangers were impressed upon him by the 1892 explosion at York Farm Colliery—when he was eleven years old—that killed fifteen men. The Molly Maguires, a society of activists who fought to improve the dangerous working conditions in the mines, had actively campaigned for better working conditions, but positive changes were still some time off.
Violent clashes between organized workers and mine bosses continued throughout Abel’s life, from the hanging of twenty Pennsylvania coal miners believed to be members of the Molly Maguires in the 1870s and the Lattimer Massacre in nearby Hazleton in 1897, to the infamous Ludlow Massacre and ensuing Colorado Coalfield War, in which hundreds died in that very year of 1914. Realizing both the apparent and unseen dangers of his profession, Abel took no chances in providing for his family should some ill-fated event occur. He filed his will at the local courthouse in Porter on July 2, 1914.
Abel was obviously pondering the future when he filed his will. Perhaps it was a general sense of foreboding, or maybe he had the feeling something wasn’t right. One of the unseen dangers of a coal miner’s life was black lung, always a concern for both current and former miners. Or perhaps it was his plans for an adventurous trip to Colorado. Whatever the case, he was wise to plan well.
Abel heard of the mining booms taking place in Colorado. Family stories say he left Pennsylvania in search of copper in Colorado. Although copper mines were scarce in Colorado, swindlers like the notorious W. C. Calhoun were not. Abel could have met or heard about Calhoun and the copper mine stocks he was selling.
Wanting to provide for his wife and new children, Abel may have left for Colorado to check on his investments; or maybe it was the adventurous spirit instilled in Abel by his grandfather, Alexander, who left Scotland to come to the New World. Upon his arrival in Colorado, Abel found his stocks were potentially fraudulent and took up employment in one of the many booming gold or silver mines of the time. Gussie, a resourceful woman, was left at home to care for their children.
Abel’s trip to Colorado left him feeling rather unwell and he had a strong yearning to return home to familiar soil. Shortly thereafter, he became a victim of the influenza pandemic, and after contracting pneumonia, he died on October 15, 1918. He was only 37 years of age.
The leaves had begun to fall, and the Pennsylvanian mountains were awash with beauty and color. The family gathered for Abel’s burial services on a windswept October day. They said their final goodbyes as he was returned to the soil so near to where his life had begun. His mortal remains were laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery in Tower City, Pennsylvania.
Abel died leaving Gussie with four small children all under the age of twelve. Rather than choosing to remarry, Gussie decided to brave the world on her own. Luckily, the family home had already been paid for, so she and the children had a secure roof over their heads. Gussie’s lack of education left her with few options for income, but this did not hinder her in finding a way to earn much needed funds. With her agile hands, she found plenty of work as a seamstress. This allowed her to remain at home and tend to her children while also supporting the family financially. The boys were still attending school and too young to contribute to the family income, but they managed to persevere and remain together as a family through this trying period of their lives.
In only a decade, Gussie was a financially stable widow living in a community among many other widows. It was a coming new age of amazing technologies. Advances in aviation allowed the imagination to take flight by following the travels and tragedies of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. The Jazz age was in full swing, and for a few hard-earned pennies, one could enter the strange and wonderful world of The Wizard of Oz, a moving picture show. Gussie was likely amazed at seeing so many things she never could have dreamed of at the turn of the century.
Still the family prevailed. Gussie was fortunate to be keeping house for her children well away from the Midwestern Dust Bowl and they were lucky enough to be among those who still had jobs at the beginning of the Great Depression. The boys were working as coal miners and Lydia had begun her long-term job as a looper at a hosiery factory. Even for those in a household with multiple incomes, the nation’s financial situation dictated frugality in all things. By 1930, Gussie owned a home and lot valued at $3,500, and they no longer farmed.
Grandson Gerald recalled: My father’s parents were Gussie and Abel from Schuylkill County. Grandpa Abel, a coal miner, died well before I was born. Abel was a very smart person with an analytical mind, with a great interest in philosophical matters. He was outgoing and emotionally expressive and very honest. Gussie said Abel used to travel to Colorado often for work. They spent their days working, cooking and raising their kids. Occasionally we spent little at Gussie’s, she lived in a three-story single-family home at 329 Main Street, Sheridan, near Tower City. There were seven rooms, one bath, and a huge walk-in attic. She had a large coal stove she used for cooking and heating. Grandma was a homemaker, who made delicious pies, and I remember listening to her piano player. She was a good woman, music lover and often read from the bible. Grandma was an exceptional cook and baker. She knew many home health remedies. She liked working in the garden and with her chickens. She was a kind, loving, and hard-working woman.” Even at ninety-three, Beulah had a visible energy about her that great-grandson Marc illustrates: “Although she looked so very old, her eyes were young and vibrant. It seems Gussie was ahead of her time.”
Radio was gaining popularity as an economic American pastime. Like many other families who owned a radio set, Gussie and her children probably spent the evenings listening to their favorite broadcast programs. A pleasant accompaniment would have been a fresh-baked plate of the newly invented Toll House chocolate chip cookies and fresh milk all around.
Several years later, Gussie and Lydia were still living on Main Street in Sheridan. It was a middle-class neighborhood populated mostly by miners and mill workers. Gussie was surely proud to own her home at a value of $680, which would be equal to about $12,000 today. She took care of the house while Lydia worked at the stocking mill. Being the highest paid looper in the area, Lydia earned $550 a year to support them both. It was a modest lifestyle when a loaf of bread cost about eight cents, a quart of milk averaged eleven cents, and eggs were nearly 27 cents a dozen. With a little more than $10 a month to live on, economizing was a continuing necessity.
While the radio was one of the main leisure activities available, it was also the main means of getting the news. When Germany invaded France and Italy declared war on Britain and France, it no doubt caused them much concern. It was the beginning of a period of unrest that would last for many years.
The loss and devastation of WWII may have been the catalyst for Gussie to face her own eventual mortality. She filed her last will and testament at the local courthouse on May 27, 1950, not long after her 65th birthday, at which point she would have started drawing on her Social Security benefits, another innovation of the 20th century.
Nephew Victor recollected: I remember my aunt Gussie. Her husband died before I was born but I remember going to Gussie’s house, her daughter Lydia was always there. Her son Harper was a line-man for the Telephone Company. Our family was always invited into her front room, usually going in the side entrance. I can see aunt Gussie saying, “Here comes Junior and his family.” In the front room, I remember the piano-organ and Aunt Gussie would take out albums showing us pictures of the Hensel and Thompson family. I can still see the coal and wood stove being used, nor only for heating, but also for cooking. When we went there we had to use the outhouse but later I remember going upstairs to an indoor bathroom. Talking of the second floor, I recall hearing a story that bats lived in the second story. As for Gussie’s parents, my grandparents, I was about six when Howard and Clara passed. I have hardly any remembrances of them. I do remember their homestead in Tower City, Pennsylvania. I have seen pictures of it and remember the inside of the house, it was small but warm, homey and organized.
It would be several more decades before the reading of Gussie’s will would come to pass. During that time, she continued to live with and keep house for Lydia, who never married. She continued to find comfort in Lydia’s countenance, which reminded her of the dear husband so many years gone. Living through these years, she would see many changes in youth morality, racial discrimination, and in the political face of America. She would experience the loss of her son Wilbur Clark, who left behind a widow, Elva May.
Gussie, an aging widow with a childhood rooted in the Victorian age, took these changes in stride. She occupied her time in charitable efforts as a member of the Women’s Society of Christian Service. Finding a commonality amongst other Methodist ladies of similar age and like mind, she spent her days in Bible study fellowship, sharing the gospel with others, aiding the poor, visiting the aged, and assisting those of general misfortune. When she was not on her missions as benefactor, she practiced her faith at the Lykens United Methodist Church or the Wesley United Methodist Church in Tower City. It was a faith Gussie continued to practice until her passing in March of 1973.
Gussie’s sister Edna wrote: I liked Gussie’s soon Harper very much. At one time, Harper lived with us when he worked in Allentown for the Bell Telephone Co. The depression began, and he was laid off. I visited Harper, Myrtle and their family in 1937 at South 18th Street. At one time we had relatives all over Tower City. I wondered who bought Gussie’s old home, the last of the Thompson homestead properties. I am proud to be in the Hensel-Thompson clan.
Gussie Hensel Thompson departed this world at the grand and respectable age of eighty-eight years. Her heart and circulatory system failing, she experienced a brain hemorrhage and breathed her last breath peacefully at home on March 27, 1973. It was a chilly day when her loved ones attended her funeral services at the Dean O. Snyder Mortuary in Tower City.
Gussie was one of the first women to work regularly and long-term, as a Seamstress, to support her family when most women of her time would quickly have remarried. She was widowed at 33 and tirelessly supported her family, community, church and herself for many decades with the power of her sewing needle without the help of a husband. She was the only one of this generation of ancestor who lost a spouse under age forty and didn’t remarry. She was also one of only five ancestral women to live past the age of 88. Died during Easter holiday.
There to pay respects were her sons Abel Franklin and wife, Almeda Ellen; Harper Bruce and wife, Myrtle Adeline; and of course, her faithful daughter, Lydia Mae. She was laid to rest next to her beloved Abel in Tower City’s historic Greenwood Cemetery. Buried amongst many family and friends, their place of committal is a peaceful memorial garden overlooking a meandering branch of the great Schuylkill River. Abel and Gussie’s third child, Harper, was the direct ancestor of the Thompson line.
Being raised during the Disputed Election of 1876 and Little Big Horn. Remembering the beginning of the Railroad Era, Thomas Edison, the Labor Movement and the Spanish-American War. They experienced the country’s Reconstruction leading to the Second Industrial Revolution as they were starting families. This family pushed onward through remarkably challenging and burdensome times, living stronger than before and providing us our opportunity!