Thank You, Miss Ophelia

Ophelia Griffith, date unknown

By Rachel Brown

It was a warm June day in the year 1874 when Ophelia Griffith stood with hands planted firmly on hips in the kitchen of the summer hotel on Lake Chautauqua. Miss Ophelia, as she was known to one and all, was the proprietor with older sister Martha. At the age of 37, she was what was called a “spinster,” a somewhat pejorative term for any woman who remained unmarried after the age of 30.

She looked with some exasperation on the flurry of activity that characterized the preparations for the noontime meal. The cook, Hilda Swanson, a broad-faced Swede, was attempting to instruct two younger Swedish girls as they made the daily loaves of bread, while at the same time seeing to the large roast beef ready to be removed from one of two massive wood-burning cook stoves in the kitchen. Being Saturday, a new contingent of boarders was expected to arrive for the week. Someone would need to be down at the dock to meet the steamer from Mayville and to see to the trunks. Where was Anders Hedin, the hired man?

As if on cue, Anders came into the kitchen, somewhat hot and dusty after the long walk from his home atop Swede Hill in Jamestown. “Anders, there you are,” said Miss Ophelia. “Hitch the wagon and get down to the dock right away.” It was then she noticed the young boy who had followed the man into the kitchen. “Who’s this?” She demanded. “D’is my boy Johann,” said Anders. “He come help.” The boy, a slender lad of no more than eight looked shyly up at the imposing figure now looming over him. “Good,” said Miss O. “Get that load of wood and stack it here by the stove,” pointing to the woodshed attached to the back of the kitchen. The boy jumped into action with a speed and willingness not lost on his stern taskmaster.

From that day forward young John, as he came to be known, was an indispensable part of the operation. He would spend the next 64 years of his life in that place. He would meet his future wife Selma Moline, like himself a Swedish immigrant. She had come in 1892, making the long voyage in steerage on a ship from Sweden, via Liverpool, England, and on to New York, passing through the gates of Ellis Island at the age of 16. Together they would raise a family of three children – the youngest being Anna, my grandmother. The year my grandmother was born, Ophelia Griffith turned over the deed to the farm to John Hedin.

John and Selma Hedin with their three children: Florence, Griffith, and Anna (center). Courtesy of Anna’s granddaughter, Rachel Brown.

Anna Ophelia Hedin Erickson was born April 30, 1906. Less than one month later, on May 23, 1906, Ophelia Griffith opened her home to the annual meeting of the Political Equality Club of Chautauqua County. My grandmother grew up literally, “at the knee” of this remarkable woman; a woman who had become a pillar of the community, the embodiment of strength and independence. She would call her “Grandma” and would be nurtured and cared for and encouraged in turn to find her own strength and independence.

A sketch of Ophelia’s from her youth, courtesy of Rachel Brown

Ophelia Griffith (1837-1920) was the youngest of twelve children born to John and Tryphena Bemus Griffith. Both of her parents had come with their parents to Chautauqua in the year 1806, when it was still a dense wilderness. Jeremiah Griffith and Daniel Bemus were pioneer settlers, arriving during the inhospitable winter months. They traveled down the frozen lake, carrying their belongings on sleds pulled by oxen. Jeremiah arrived a couple of months after Daniel Bemus and laid claim to a large tract of land extending from the Belleview Road to Fluvanna, in what is now the Town of Ellery. Years later Jeremiah’s oldest son, John, would divide the land among his twelve children. In the 1850’s, to his two unmarried daughters he gave 100 acres in the section now known as Martha’s Vineyard. Martha and Ophelia took charge of the farm, planting grapes, corn and other crops and keeping a small herd of cattle. They then determined to add on to the family home built by their father and transform it into a boarding hotel to accommodate the growing number of summer visitors flocking to the area.

After the Civil War, Ophelia and Martha had become members of the newly formed Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange. This was an association of farmers created to give support to those living in rural areas; to share the latest improvements in farming techniques and implements, as well as to provide a clearinghouse of information on issues of concern. Chief among these concerns was the railroad monopoly, scourge of farmers across the country. In its structure, the Grange was modeled after fraternal organizations like the Masons or Odd Fellows. Unlike many such societies, however, the Grange admitted women and even encouraged a certain number be made officers of the organization. Like rural churches, granges often became the center of farming communities, hosting suppers, concerts, speakers and even lending libraries. According to the History of the Grange Movement by Edward Winslow Martin, published in 1873, this was a way to mix business with pleasure: “It was the old principle of the husking-frolic and the quilting bee, applied to loftier objects and practiced with a sterner eye….” The loftier objects in this case were nothing less than the elevation of society, socially and morally. At the beginning, some male members were wary of giving women equal stature in this pursuit. They felt that “woman’s proper sphere is the fireside,” and women’s involvement would be “the first step toward woman’s rights.” This latter fear proved to have some merit. As it turned out, women did want to participate more fully; they wanted to have a voice in the direction of their own lives, in their communities, and in the nation. One way to achieve this would be through winning the right to vote.

Chautauqua County became an important epicenter of the movement for women’s political equality during the latter part of the 19th century, through the efforts of women like Ophelia Griffith. The county became the first in New York State to form a Political Equality Club and by 1891 had the largest and best-organized association of these suffrage clubs in the entire country. One of the first orders of business was to get women elected to local school boards. Chautauqua newspapers, including the Jamestown Evening Journal (now the Post-Journal) opposed the idea of making any changes to the all-male Board of Education, saying in an editorial in 1889 that “they should let well enough alone.” But the clubs pushed forward and two women were elected that year.
One of the rallying cries for woman’s suffrage echoed that of our founding patriots: “No taxation without representation!” In 1902, the fifteenth annual convention of the Chautauqua County Political Equality Club was held at the home of Mrs. Carrie Hanson of Fluvanna. A couple of the local club members had taken on the painstaking chore of compiling a list of taxpayers in Jamestown. This task had taken two days but in the end they were able to show that fully one-third of the city’s taxpayers were women. Think of it! One third of the city’s citizens paid taxes but weren’t allowed to vote!

Miss Ophelia continued to attend local, county, and even state meetings for woman’s suffrage, as well as Grange conventions in the state, while operating the summer hotel at Martha’s Vineyard. On March 30, 1917, she turned 80 years old. A guest book on this momentous occasion shows the event was attended by over 100 people, including many members of the Political Equality Club. Another milestone would be reached in November of that year – one that Miss Ophelia and others had worked long and hard to achieve; an amendment to the New York State Constitution was approved giving women the right to vote. New York was the first Eastern state to fully enfranchise women, though it would be another three years before the U. S. Constitution was amended, giving the right to all.

Ill health prevented Ophelia Griffith from exercising her hard-won right. She died April 13, 1920, two weeks after her 83rd birthday. It is safe to say that without the courage and determination of Miss Ophelia and the other women of Chautauqua County, we would not be celebrating over 100 years of women having the right to vote in New York State.

Local Political Equality Club members, circa 1910. Pictured from left to right are: Hetty Sherwin, Sarah Dickenson, Ophelia Griffith, and Eleanore Grant. Provided courtesy of Kim Bentley.