January 1992

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Little Nellie Williams



Robert G. Koch

Women have of course always worked in the home, around the farm, on the pioneer land claim, but an area woman—at first, a mere girl—illustrates how home and the wider world can interpenetrate when women assume unconventional roles.

Nellie Williams of Penfield, who at eight was a motherless "little lass," was twelve when she became, according to a Prospectus for the Penfield Extra "the sole Editress and Compositor, and probably the youngest Publisher and Proprietor of a weekly Newspaper in the world." Already she had experience helping her older brother, Leroy, print an occasional single sheet of advertising on a press that their father won in a card game. According to Katherine Wilcox Thompson's 1960 history of Penfield, their father, Leander K. Williams, a tailor, then switched to printing, but opted out to run a drugstore, turning the press over to his son.

Nellie, aged nine, "for diversion" helped him—in the days of handset type—to "distribute" the type characters back to their alphabetical compartments. Within two years she was printing "a little monthly paper calculated only for our village people. But soon the circulation increased to that degree that I was induced to print it weekly so as to circulate it in the county free of postage."

Then the Civil War came on. Her father was apparently not sympathetic to the Union cause, but his son joined the New York 8th Volunteer Cavalry in the summer of 1862. This left Nellie as sole proprietor of the press and whatever words it might reproduce.

The masthead of her publication, the Penfield Extra, newly designed by Messrs. Johnson and Co. of the Philadelphia Type Foundry, featured a drawing of the Bible and was subtitled, "Little Nellie's Little Paper." She wrote that her late mother's "dying request was that I should take the Bible for my guide and take up my cross and follow Jesus and in this way I would one day meet my dear Ma where troubles and trials are never known." The Penfield Extra, she proclaimed, was "Devoted to News and Literature and Neutral in Politics."

But Ellen Theresa Williams was hardly "neutral." She may have tried for a pro forma neutrality, straddling her father's preferences and her brother's military commitment, but the scars showed. For example, in 1863, "when Frederick Douglass was harassed in his efforts to speak at the Penfield Presbyterian Church…she was not much in sympathy with the abolitionist cause. 'Fred' [she reported] was not to be baffled in this way and began to whip Penfield in a cruel manner…This was Fred Douglas' [sic] last lecture in Penfield.'"

With a sickly father and her brother in the army, Little Nellie had to be serious about the paper's financial success. In a year she increased circulation ten-fold and in another year doubled her following of "little readers," as she called them. She sought ads vigorously, instructing merchants that "you might 'bout as well go a fishing without any bait, as to undertake to do a large paying business…without advertising in a local newspaper." She also counseled prospective advertisers that "…it does not need to be a lengthy article, make it short and explicit and many more will read it, and the shorter it is the less it will cost."

The Penfield history also reports that, "During the years that Little Nellie edited the paper, she filled her four page, 8 by 12 tabloid with exchanges gleaned from the papers other editors sent to her, bits of news about the weather, informative comments on politics…puns and jokes." For example, she wrote: "We have many curious names of subscribers, but undoubtedly some of the names of our town residents would be a curiosity to our subscribers. A few years ago we had, on one street, Mr. Hipp, Skipp, Tripp, Hopp, Jump, Quick and Ketcham."

"Two of the four pages were advertisements. Several times she devoted an entire page to history…," including the reminiscences of Samuel Strowger, then 66, but who was three years old when he came to Penfield with his father in 1800. Strowger's son, Almon, was the teacher of Leroy and Nellie Williams, and like Leroy joined the 8th Volunteer Cavalry.

In sending out her promotion for the Penfield Extra, Nellie commented, "All Editors giving an extract of my new prospectus a small corner, I will consider it a birthday present." By 1864 she claimed that the Extra had "subscribers and Exchanges…from New Brunswick, to numerous places in California…[and] is probably read weekly, by ten thousand people, from preface to finis."

He brother Leroy was killed during the fighting in the Shenandoah valley. At the close of the war, the Penfield Extra was one of two weekly newspapers in Monroe County outside of Rochester. She published it until the spring of 1866, "when newsprint and costs of publishing" forced her to suspend publication. It would be twenty years before Penfield had another weekly, and that was designated for strictly local advertising and reading.

Two years after Nellie closed down the paper, she married one Henry Braden, on her nineteenth birthday. Six and a half years later she left "a three-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter" when she met "her dear Ma where troubles and trials are never known," having died of the "family scourge," consumption.

© 1992, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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