My great great grandmother began her life on February 14, 1861 in the tiny snow-bound village of Moscow, Minnesota as Agnes Vanderwalker. Sadly, her mother, Clarinda Stokes Vanderwalker, died in childbirth leaving her father, Isaac Vanderwalker, with six young children. When the Civil War broke out two months later, he decided it would be best to hand the infant over into the care of a local couple who wanted to expand their family. And after being adopted by John and Mary Call who, in 1870, relocated to a farm on Bailhache Avenue outside of Healdsburg, California, Agnes Vanderwalker Call did enjoy an idyllic childhood. [More details here.]
TEENAGERS IN 19TH CENTURY HEALDSBURG
In November 1876, a few months before Agnes’ sixteenth birthday, the Healdsburg Amateur Minstrel Club put on their first show to rave reviews. Many of the townspeople attended the event held to benefit the local library. The show was repeated the next month, this time followed by a dance which lasted past midnight. If Agnes was there, her eye would surely have been drawn to rakish eighteen year-old George Congleton who was playing the Mr. Bones character.
Young George Washington Congleton had been born May 26, 1858 in Petaluma where he lived until the sudden death of his father, John E. Congleton, in January 1863. By 1870, the family had relocated and the widow Almira Almy Congleton was living in Healdsburg with her new husband Sebre Gustin Burgess. Twelve year old George Congleton was living with a tenant farmer in nearby Washington Township where he attended school. By this time his older siblings were all married and living in various parts of Northern California.
Agnes spent her sixteenth year establishing herself in Healdsburg Society. She attended numerous parties along with other young people from locally prominent families and joined the Charity Temple, No. 14, of Junior Templars, serving on the Executive Committee. She even represented the local temple at that organization’s 1877 regional meeting.
A HASTY MARRIAGE
Meanwhile, the Healdsburg Amateur Minstrel Club continued to present shows at various venues around Healdsburg throughout 1877 and George Congleton’s name was always prominently displayed in the reviews. In February 1878, Agnes Call turned seventeen. A few months later she discovered that she was pregnant. In 1878 there was only one thing that could happen next.
The Healdsburg Enterprise reported on their September 8, 1878 Bailhache Avenue wedding in a manner that reflected the devil-may-care personality of the groom, offering special congratulations in appreciation for the wedding cake that had been provided to the newspaper staff.
On February 14, 1879 Lula Mae Congleton was born on her mother Agnes’ eighteenth birthday. The young family moved in with George’s mother, Almira Burgess, now widowed for the second time, in her house on Sherman Street in Healdsburg. Just over a year later, on May 21, 1880, little Mae was joined by a brother, John Easley Congleton, named after his grandfather. Their father, George, was making a living as an apprentice to a painter, specifically a carriage painter.
THE FUN NEVER STOPS
On December 4, 1881, just eighteen months after Johnny Congleton had been born, a second son, Aden “Porter” Claude Congleton, joined the family. Three weeks later, on December 26, 1881, George left his wife and their three children (a 2 year-old, an 18 month-old, and a three week-old), at home to kick up his heels at the grand masquerade ball given by Healdsburg Post 16, G.A.R., at Powell’s Theater. The evening was reportedly a great success and many prizes were awarded for the best costumes and dancers, although, sadly, George’s monkey costume did not win a prize that night.
The fun did not end for Agnes’ husband, as the following May 1882 found him enjoying the huge picnic at Hasset’s Grove held by the Turn Verein and Firemen of Petaluma that was attended by 3,000 people. The day-long program included foot races, a tug-of-war, weight lifting, shooting and equestrian competitions. George Congleton won the Firemen’s prize for running 175 yards. The day was capped off with a dazzling dance that evening in Petaluma. There is no indication that Agnes was there to enjoy the festivities.
PURSUIT OF GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT
By all accounts, George’s wagon painting business seemed to be doing well when in July 1882 the Russian River Flag reported that he may soon be taking over the E.B. McWilliams’ sign-painting business on West Street across from the flouring mill. However, there was no further mention of the deal ever going through to fruition. Then six months later, in January 1883, George’s first publicized brush with the law occurred when he was sentenced to 60 days in jail for disturbing the peace and resisting an officer.
Soon after his release, George contracted with J.H. Biggs to build a peddler’s wagon that was to be stocked by W.L. Griffith, which George planned to drive throughout the countryside selling merchandise. But again, there was no further mention of this scheme which would indicate that the deal had ever gone through. By now Agnes had her hands full raising 4-year old Mae, 3-year old Johnny, and 16-month old Claude.
MORE TROUBLE WITH THE LAW
The next serious brush with the law came in January 1884 when George Congleton was arrested and fined for driving over the 6-mph speed limit established by the newly-adopted charter for the City of Healdsburg. He refused to pay the fine and was jailed. A writ of habeas corpus was successfully processed and George was released, only to be picked up the following month in Petaluma and sentenced to 90 days in jail for again resisting arrest.
Meanwhile, long-suffering Agnes had begun taking in seamstress work to keep her young family fed and the rent on their Piper Street house paid. That house was conveniently located just about a block away from the saloon district where George was known to spend a good deal of his time. On one occasion, when one of her sons was ill, Agnes walked to the saloon to obtain some whiskey that she hoped would ease his suffering. There she found George, in a state of drunkenness.
By the time that 1885 rolled around, George had left Agnes and the children and had set up housekeeping with a prostitute named Carrie. The pair was soon expelled from town by the local constabulary on a charge of vagrancy. Reportedly they headed North to Lakeport where Carrie opened a house of ill repute. When that establishment burned to the ground, they left Lakeport, passing through Healdsburg on their way to points South. George stopped in long enough to visit Agnes and to inform her that he was living the life of an idle gentleman at Carrie’s expense.
FREE AT LAST
Meanwhile, Agnes continued to support herself and her children as best she could. In addition to her work as a seamstress she was now going out to clean people’s houses. And she was saving up every spare penny for the day she would be able to break free.
In the 1880s, a man could sue his wife for divorce claiming a number of grounds including adultery and cruelty. But the only grounds for divorce that a woman was allowed to claim was desertion. And there was a year-long waiting period.
By the end of 1886, Agnes had been abandoned for the requisite year, but she needed to retain the services of an attorney. In addition to the attorney fees, she also would have to pay the Sheriff to serve papers on the defendant. Since by this time George Congleton was living in Santa Clara County, there would be the added cost for the Sheriff’s travel.
In the 1870s, Healdsburg native William Francis Russell had attended grammar school at Mill Creek and had completed High School at Alexander Academy with distinction. He had then obtained his law degree in Ventura County. In early 1884 he set out his shingle across the street from the County Courthouse in Santa Rosa and began looking for clients among his Healdsburg friends. In 1887 he agreed to represent Agnes in her action against husband George. Finally, on July 20, 1887, Agnes Call Congleton was able to file for a divorce.
Agnes testified in her own behalf, relating the sometimes lurid details of her experience with married life. Her friend Vesta F. Clark, respected local matron active in the Pythian Sisters, also testified for Agnes, confirming that she had a good reputation and was a good and devoted mother to her children. A neighbor and friend of defendant George, Jess King, also testified. He confirmed that his friend, George Congleton, had told him he was living with the woman known as Carrie. He agreed that Agnes had a good reputation and was attached to her children. And although he indicated that George was good as far as his work went, he also testified that his morality was very poor. Although the court records are clear that the Santa Clara Sheriff had successfully served George Congleton with the divorce summons, George did not bother to appear or to respond in any way.
On October 3, 1887, Judge Thomas Rutledge decreed that the marriage between Agnes L. Congleton and George W. Congleton was dissolved and that Agnes would be granted the care, custody and control of the minor children.
Tragically, Agnes would not have been in any mood to celebrate her newfound independence because on August 9, 1887, while the court case against her husband was still pending, their seven year-old son Johnny Congleton had died unexpectedly.
Agnes had really been put through the wringer for the better part of ten years. Now she was a 26 year-old single mother with two young children to raise. But she was made of strong stock and was not about to give up. She possessed the resilience to begin anew. Before long she would find the love of her life who would partner with her to raise her children and she would rejoin Healdsburg Society with her head held high. She would even be able to parlay the expert sewing skills that she had honed in order to keep their heads above water during the tough times into a source of enjoyment and camaraderie in later life.
To learn more about her next adventures, please read Agnes Rejoins Healdsburg Society