The Newell Letters

The Story of a Waltonville Boy, Jimmy Newell, who traveled to the Big City in 1906, as Told through Family Letters.

Upon the death of my mother, Mary Alice Newell Pierce in 2013, I came to possess almost fifty letters of correspondence between my grandfather, James Newell, and his family, written in the fall of 1906. The Newell family were early settlers in the Waltonville area and the correspondence reveals many interesting things about that time and place in southern Illinois.

The children of Ida and Ichabod Newell of Waltonville, Illinois: Left to right, James, Raleigh, and Elsie Newell.

Written in a four month span, the Newell correspondence sprung from a rather dramatic family event. Twenty-year-old James, called “Jimmy” by his family, had abruptly decided to leave his family’s farm near the village of Waltonville in southern Illinois in September of 1906.  He traveled by coal-fired train from the nearby little town of Ashley to Evanston, Illinois, near Chicago, to attend Northwestern Academy, the preparatory school for Northwestern University. To his fourteen-year-old sister, Elsie, Jimmy reported, “It was a terrible hot dusty trip. I have never told how fast the train came. It was a mail train, and being late, it came into Ashley like a flash of lightning.”

One of the very first of Jimmy Newell’s letters also explains how the correspondence came to be saved in the first place. In a letter from Jimmy to his sister, he wrote, “Elsie, I wish you would be kind enough to save all my letters, and when I come home it will be very interesting to read them, so save them all. Put them away where you can find them, say in Pa’s old trunk.” Elsie latter wrote back, “I keep your letters up in your office.” Thus, Elsie Newell ended up saving all the letters and later passed them down to Jimmy’s oldest daughter, my mother, Mary Alice Newell Pierce. These letters are made even more intriguing by a family mystery.

A 1912 photo of Waltonville Methodist Church members. Jimmy Newell is the third person from the right in the middle row. His mother, Ida, is the sixth person from the left, in the striped dress.

For reasons never made fully clear to later generations, my grandfather came home shortly before his first term ended as unexpectedly as he had left. The correspondences, however, certainly offer interesting and important clues as to why he returned. The great bulk of the correspondence would be between James and his mother, Ida, and with his younger sister, Elsie.

A photo of James Newell taken around the time he traveled to Evanston, Illinois, to attend Northwestern University.

The letters contain many interesting things about the Newell family, Waltonville, and life in the early 1900s in southern Illinois.  I used these letters to write an article for a genealogy journal, Connections: The Hoosier Genealogist, to demonstrate how people may use their own family’s personal letters to gain a deeper understanding, a greater appreciation and a stronger empathy for their ancestors.