November 1989

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A Card of Hair

Prepared in Memory of Friends

Tyrone, New York


Bill Treichler

About 15 years ago Helen Willover Porter, Town Historian of Tyrone, New York, was approached by an antique dealer with an unusual find: a framed display of 79 delicate little wreaths of hair, with names under each circlet.

Fine script writing in the center of the display stated, "This Card of Hair was Prepared in Memory of Friends by Patty Jane and Lucinda Willover, 1852, Tyrone, Steuben County, New York."

Mrs. Porter and her sister Gertrude Willover Graham bought the "Card of Hair" for sixteen dollars.

Many of the names under the beautifully braided wreaths belonged to Willovers, among them Helen and Gertrude's grandfather George Willover and his sister Elizabeth.

George went off to the Civil War as a young man, and while he was gone his young bride died in childbirth along with her newborn infant.

His younger brother Charles also went to the war, but he died in camp of dysentery before ever seeing a battlefield.

After the Civil War, George returned to Schuyler County and married Teressa Hughey. They adopted a four-year-old boy, William Stevens, who became Helen Willover Porter's father. William's father had been killed, and his young mother had no way to support a child. Mrs. Porter says her father was never able to talk about his real mother. He never forgave her for giving him up, and never got over the hurt.

When George Willover died he left his house and furnishings to his son William Stevens Willover with the stipulaton that George's sister, Elizabeth, would have life occupancy.

When Aunt Elizabeth was very elderly, and of course, still lighting her house with candles and kerosene lamps, the house burned down. She escaped, but William's inheritance was lost.

The names of the brother and sister, George and Elizabeth Willover, are commemorated on the "Card of Hair."

The only women memorialized on the Card who did not have their names mentioned along with their husbands were the wives of .the three ministers on the Card.

In 1852, was it unseemly for the wives of ministers to be linked in such an equal fashion with their husbands? Or did Patty Jane and Lucinda simply not know how to handle the protocol of writing the names? We will never know, for they listed these couples as the Rev. James Rowlett and wife, Rev. B. Russell and wife, and Rev. H. Mosse and wife.

Other questions come to mind. How long did it take Patty Jane and Lucinda to gather 79 strands of hair, including their own, and weave them into wreaths of elegant and varied designs? They could have worked on it nonstop for several months, or it could have taken them years of braiding and sewing the tiny bows that finish off each wreath.

They had very skillful fingers. We can imagine them as creators of some of the grander examples of hair weaving seen in museums, but nothing else could have the charm of this "Card of Hair Prepared in Memory of Friends."

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