By Thomas Palmer
One of the real treats of involvement with Preserving Galion, Inc. and the Gill House restoration project is the ongoing opportunity for research.
When the house was first acquired in 2011, much of the known history of the Gill family was speculation. Piece by piece, evidence has appeared in the intervening years that has provided a more complete picture of the Gills and their rather well-known family friends.
Take, for instance, the relationship between Nellie Stewart Gill and Mina Miller Edison, the second wife of inventor Thomas Alva Edison (pictured). Careful study has led to an awareness of how Nellie and Mina met, their close friendship, and the continued contact between the Gills and the Edisons.
It began with a supposition. Could the Stewarts and the Millers have actually been family friends during both girls’ childhoods? It turns out that the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
Nellie’s father, Alonzo Melville Stewart (he went by “A.M. Stewart”), was for a time the stockyard manager for the Erie Railroad in Galion – a very important position in the company in one of its major rail centers. He was also a man with a strong religious bent. He joined the Methodist Church in Galion after a revival during the pastorate of Rev. Pepper. Pepper was followed by Rev. E.Y. Warner, who was simultaneously President of the Chautauqua program at Lakeside.
Mina’s father was Lewis Miller, a very successful industrialist from Akron. Miller had interests in Mansfield and was also a dedicated member of the Methodist Church there and a strong proponent of the Sunday School movement – a major part of Protestant churches in the latter part of the 19th century.
That movement, in fact, led to Miller’s creation of an encampment for the training of Sunday School teachers in western New York – a place known since as the Chautauqua Institution. That’s precisely where Ms. Miller from Akron and Ms. Stewart from Galion met.
Period newspapers contain several references to the Stewarts making the trip to New York State, among which were these:
Galion Inquirer, August 29, 1879 – “Mrs. A.M. Stewart and daughter Nellie returned Wednesday evening after a six weeks’ stay at Chautauqua.”
A Cincinnati newspaper in July of the same year in their “Galion” column – “Mrs. A.M. Stewart and daughter will leave for Lake Chautauqua this morning for a few weeks.”
There is also a hotel registry at Chautauqua dated 1902 in which A.M. Stewart was a guest. The event was “Old First Night,” which was an annual commemoration of the first rally at Chautauqua 29 years previously. In 1897, both the Stewarts and the Millers were guests at the famed Hotel Athenaeum there at the same time.
Perhaps the most telling evidence is a 1931 Galion Inquirer article that profiled the friendship between the Gills and the Edisons. It stated, “When they were girls, Mrs. Edison and Mrs. Gill met at the Chautauqua and a warm friendship resulted. Mrs. Edison lived in Akron about that period, and the two ladies exchanged visits on several occasions.” The article went on to mention that the Edisons last visited the Gill House in August 1923, an event which will be commemorated this summer in a party at the house, 100 years to the day after it took place.
Bloomer and Nellie Gill named one of their daughters “Mina Miller Gill” after Mrs. Edison.
Preserving Galion is in possession of a rare photograph believed to depict Nellie Stewart Gill and Mina Miller Edison before either were married, likely taken in Galion. It is one of the few surviving images of Mina Miller from that period.
Each Saturday, we share a post about local history. We call this series “Galion History Corner,” and we will be sharing not only stories about our shared heritage but also updates on history news here in southeast Crawford County.
This series is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Bernard M. Mansfield, whose “Your Historical Galion” was a fixture in weekend editions of the Galion Inquirer. Dr. Mansfield was a friend and family physician, and he inspired the current generation of Galion historians to continue his work.