Early Years and Forebears
One winter’s day in 1888, a phenomenal winter weather event paralyzed the Midwest and northern plains of the United States. Now the event is known as the Children’s Blizzard. On that day, January 12, historians tell us that the morning started with mild temperatures, even relatively warm. When at mid-day the weather took a turn for the worse, everyone was caught off guard. There was a sudden, steep drop in temperature, and as it started to snow, the weather quickly changed to extreme blizzard conditions. Children perished on their way home. Farmers died when they could not find their way from barn to house, just yards away.
Fortunately for the family of Morrison McMillan and Cynthia Alice York Fay, the worst of the winter weather was just to the north of Franklin County, Nebraska, where they had moved just three years before about 1855. The extreme weather is an example of the harsh conditions that early settlers of the plains encountered, challenging their resolve and efforts to established a civilized life.
Unlike new immigrants who came to the Midwest in the 1800’s with promises of fertile lands and moderate climate, only to be shocked by the harshness, the Fay family were a line of several generations of westward-moving families. The Fays were the sort of folk who thrived on the novelty and challenges that they sought.
At the time of the 1888 blizzard, Morrison and Cynthia’s children were Charlotte “Lottie” at years of age, Eleanor “Nellie” 14, Wooster A. 12, Malcolm 7, Morrison McMillan, Jr. 3 and Rowena 2. Little Cynthia had died at 5 years of age in 1884 in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, right before the move to Franklin. Three more children would be born to the family in Franklin, Justin Brooks in 1890, Joyce in 1892, and Ruth Ellsworth in 1898. Descendants tell us that the family was so big, the boys lived in the barn and the girls in the house.
Our focus in this story is upon the first son of the family, the third child. It was 1876, possibly April 8, in Council Bluffs, Iowa when Wooster A. Fay came into the world. His birth year was the 100th anniversary of the United States of America, and the year that Colorado became a state and Wild Bill Hickock was killed in a poker game in South Dakota. W. A. was born just prior to birth certificates being required in Iowa, and the subsequent records we have for him record a range of birthdates, for reasons we are not quite sure.
Wooster’s parents Morrison McMillan and Cynthia were ages 26 and 20 years old, respectively, at the time of his birth. Morrison McMillan Fay often went by M. M. He was born in Perrysburg, Ohio August 27, 1849. Cynthia was born February 25, 1855 in the state of New York, USA. By all indications, Morrison was a farmer, as was his father Wooster Fay, who was born in Vermont in 1819, married to Charlotte McMillan, born in 1826 in Ohio. Clearly, M. M. named his first son for his father. For now, we will refer to little Wooster as W. A. and to his grandfather as Wooster.
We do not know how much young W. A., as he grew up within his family, knew about his paternal line history, but today, especially in the world of digitized, online records, it is easily traced. The immigrant Fay was John Fay, who at eight years of age traveled from Gravesend, England aboard a ship called the Speedwell (not the most famous Speedwell– there were several ships by the name), arriving in Boston Harbor in 1656, accompanied by adults who were not his parents but seemed to be serving as kind guardians. The exact circumstances of John’s departure and the identities of his parents remain unclear, amidst the English Civil War and a period of political and religious upheaval.
Fortunately for us, most of John Fay’s descendants remained in Massachusetts for several generations, since the early institutions of government and church were good at keeping records of marriages, births, and deaths, and most have been preserved. Wooster came from a long line of Congregationalists. The name Wooster very likely was a throw-back to Worcester pronounced “Wooster,” Massachusetts, a residence of his ancestors, but spelling of names was pretty fluid prior to 1900, so it is easy to see why Wooster would be a preferred spelling for the grandfather and his grandson.
Immigrant John Fay first married Mary Brigham, then Susannah Shattuck after Mary died. He had children with each wife, and Wooster was a descendant of John and Susannah’s son David Fay (1679 Marlboro, Middletown County, Massachusetts – 1738 Southborough, Worcester County, Massachusetts). A study of the descendants of John Fay is interesting. With some exceptions, they could read and write. Many were farmers, but also engineers or surveyors. They fought in wars. They were leaders in their communities, and some were pastors or church leaders. Wooster’s 2nd great uncle Elijah Fay (1781-1862) was the earliest winemaker and planter of grapevines in the Chautauqua region of New York, which by the way was “moving west” at one point in our early history. Several Fays were patriots during the American Revolution, including Stephen Fay (1715 Worcester, Worcester County, Massachusetts – 1781 Bennington County, Vermont) who owned Catamount Tavern where the Green Mountain Boys, which included his son Jonas Fay (1737 Worcester, Worcester County, Massachusetts – 1818 Bennington County, Vermont), met to discuss their next moves. Jonas would be, by my calculation, Wooster’s 2nd cousin four times removed.
Wooster also was from one of the few Fay lines interested in moving west as land opened for settlement. Wooster’s father Jonathan Fay (1780 – 1839) was the older brother of the grape-planter Elijah. They were sons of Nathan Fay (1747/48 – 1831) and Ruth Rice (1755-1812) and grandsons of Aaron Fay (1719 – 1798) and Thankful Newton (1719 – 1755). Aaron was a son of Sarah Larkin (1677 – 1755) and David Fay (1679 – 1738) the oldest son of immigrant John Fay and his second wife Susannah Shattuck. So, Jonathan and Elijah were immigrant John Fay’s 2nd great grandsons. As a young man, Jonathan moved to Vermont where he married Ruth Ellsworth (Abt. 1788 – 1865), whose family had been earlier settlers of the New Hampshire Grants. It is worth mentioning that land inheritance in New England generally was split among heirs, rather than going to the first-born, as was the law in the southern colonies and states. Large families meant smaller portions of land to farm, so when land became available, a desire for a better life motivated claiming land newly opened for settlement.
While Jonathan’s younger brother Elijah remained in New York, Jonathan pressed onward, continuing to move westward from Vermont. As they established their family in Vermont, Jonathan and Ruth lost their infant Cephas, less than two years old, in 1816, and their daughter Betsey died as a teenager in 1829, but shortly after, Jonathan in his 50’s and Ruth in her 40’s the family made the move to Franklin, Ohio, with Addison 23 years old, Wooster about 13, and Hollis eight. Jonathan received a grant for acreage in Franklin County, Ohio. He died just a few years later when Wooster was 19 years of age.
At age 26 Wooster married Charlotte McMillan, just two years younger than he, in Perrysburg, Ohio in 1846. Their first daughter Emma was born in 1847 in Ohio, followed by a son and daughter in two year intervals. Then the young family moved to Iowa, eventually landing in Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa by 1860 where Wooster and Charlotte remained until Wooster’s death in 1897 at age 77. They were farmers, members of the Congregational Church, and political leaders in the area. They reared four children, Emma (1847 Ohio – 1928 Washington) Morrison McMillan (1849 Ohio – 1919 California), Jane (1851 Ohio – 1891 Washington), and Isoletta (1860 Iowa – 1892 Washington). The sisters have theirs stories, reserved for another day. Our story today is about the oldest grandson of Wooster and Charlotte and the oldest son of Morrison McMillan Fay who continued the westward-moving pattern of this Fay family line.
The westward-moving Fays were what historians typically refer to as builders. These Fays were early settlers, but not the earliest. They were not the explorers, the mountain men and women, or the machete-wielding first settlers of a location. They were among the first to enter a region when it became open for settlement, farming, or business. In that sense, they were adventurous and looking for new opportunities and a new life, a little risky, but not a lot risky in their moves.
Now back to little Wooster “W. A.” Briefly, let’s talk about his name. What did the “A” stand for? The Fay family at least for the first five or so generations re-used family given names, particularly biblical names when naming their children. The frequency of duplicate names certainly makes Fay historical research quite tricky and confusing, and one reason I included dates and spouses of W. A.’s ancestors in this piece. The best guess is that “A” is for Wooster’s brother Addison, the older brother of Wooster who had remained in Ohio, and who was very likely admired by Wooster. Since we know that by 1917 Wooster A. Fay was known as Edgar or Ed Fay, was there any family reason or impetus for the switch, the same way Charlotte was Charlotta and Lottie and Eleanor was Nellie? The family used nicknames. Lots of them, some with no evident relevance to the original name. If W. A. was Wooster Addison, and he grew up in the same community as his grandfather Wooster Fay, did they call W. A. “Addison,” and did they shorten it to Eddie, that later he took as a first name, converting it to Ed or Edgar? The issue is not a trivial one, as our story develops. We will leave him as W. A. for now…
By age seven, Morrison moved with his family to Illyria, Fayette County, Iowa, and by the time he was 11 years old, they had moved to Silver Creek Township, Pottawattamie County, Iowa, an area about 25 miles to the southeast of Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is on the Missouri River directly across from Omaha, Nebraska. At the time, the land where the Fays settled was prairie, and the family probably were the first white people to farm it. Morrison’s father Wooster was a farmer, who later became a breeder of cattle. While he was farming, he was actively involved in politics as a Republican, was in the state legislature for three years, and represented Pottawattamie County on the Board of Supervisors 1874-1880. Wooster and Charlotte eventually moved into Council Bluffs on a three-acre plot of land.
Morrison grew to adulthood with a palette of family gifts and attributes. He knew first-hand the experience of a family moving to a new location, making the move a success, and building something from nothing. He was gifted with education, interest in learning, civic duty and civic-mindedness, community involvement, leadership skills, and a spiritual bent. As his parents’ only son, one imagines he worked with his father directly and learned skills in farming, crop and plant propagation, and animal breeding and farm management.
Franklin County, Nebraska was opening as a new spot on the southern border of the central Nebraska/Kansas line, as a prime place for farming, and the railroad arrived in 1879. Franklin, NE was considered fertile and moderate in climate, and interestingly had a hilly area that was beneficial for fruit farming, an area of interest for the Fays, as we have seen previously of Wooster and Uncle Elijah of vineyard fame. As a matter of fact, as the Fays moved to Franklin the area evolved into a center of peach orchards, with several farmers involved in the industry. The Fays first owned a house east of downtown and acquired farmland the north then later traded with the John J. and Helen M. Chitwood family for a farm at the north edge of town.
To be clear, there is Franklin County, then there is Franklin the town, which now is the county seat since 1920. There was an early struggle between Franklin and Bloomington regarding who would be the ultimate county seat with Franklin the first holder of the honor in 1871, then losing to Bloomington in 1874, but Franklin was the ultimate victor. People studying the history would be wise to consider that their records or history could reside in either location, including the newspapers of each.
Franklin was a very progressive new community, located just north of the Republican River, and about 45 miles south of the Platte River. In addition to the farming, arguably the crown jewel of the city was the Franklin Academy, a coeducational boarding school established in 1881, started and supported by the Congregational Church. Did I mention that the Fays were Congregationalists? The Congregationalists as a denomination saw education of the public and the young as a mission that they took very seriously, and the Congregational Church of Franklin took their responsibilities to Franklin Academy very seriously. They actively supported the students and interacted with them. They allowed the academy to use their facilities for activities such as recitals and graduation. The school was very prestigious, and the boarding school housed students from across the region and other states. It was the only high school between the Missouri River and Denver. Franklin Academy offered the full range of academics, math, science, engineering, and the arts. It is highly possible that the existence of the Academy was a factor in the Fays’ move to Franklin. All the Fay children of age went to school at the academy at one time or another, and Charlotte (pronounced, and eventually spelled, Charlotta) became one of the instructors after she graduated.
One of the great sources of information about the Fays has been the local Franklin, Nebraska newspaper of the era, the Sentinel. Newspaper accounts describe Charlotta and Eleanor as social, hosting and attending events with their classmates and church groups. Their mother Cynthia also hosted events in the Fay home. Cynthia and Morrison were involved in church leadership, representing their local congregation at regional meetings.
In researching the Fays, it became clear that the parents’ support of the daughters in their education and activities was remarkable. By all evidence, the girls were afforded every opportunity to attend school and pursue their interests, and the girls responded by becoming active participants and leaders in church, school, and their community. The two older daughters pursued education that prepared them to become teachers.
The papers we have researched so far give less information about the sons. The current conclusion is that although the boys did receive basic education, they likely were heavily involved in the farm work with their father, not attending soirees or teas. In that regard, they would have learned about horticulture, planting, particularly fruit production, and they were exposed to plant grafting and breeding. They became adept at riding, training and breaking horses; driving wagons; maintaining and repairing farm machinery; and the raising and breeding of cattle and hogs. By later years, it became evident that Morrison had some health problems. The nature of the problem is not clear, and we do not know if Morrison developed any issues in his earlier years. If so, there would have been more work burden shifted to his sons.
Church records also give some insight into the family activities. Records of the Congregational Church in Franklin show that W. A. and his brother Malcolm attended a church revival with the family late in 1992. Both boys committed to join the church and were affirmed December, 1992. It must have been a joyful time for the family as they joined to celebrate Christmas.
There are wonderful records of the Franklin Academy housed at the Franklin County Historical Society, current president Angie Blank. While the records are incomplete, we can see evidence of all the Fay children who attended and their course of studies.
An article appeared in the Daily Times of Davenport, Iowa, November 20, 1897. The article described Miss Lottie Fay of Franklin, Nebraska who wrote a letter to Davenport Mayor Smith, pleading with him to search the local hospitals to locate her younger brother Wooster Fay. Someone gave her a clipping of a Davenport paper in which a man by the name Wooster Fay was described as badly injured. Miss Fay, clearly our Charlotte/Charlotta Fay, explained in the letter that her brother Wooster had been enticed away from Franklin by an older companion when a lad and had not been heard from since, but by now would be about 21 years old. In addition to the Daily Times, the Quad-City Times and the Davenport Weekly Republican ran articles the same week, citing the concerning letter. The newspaper editors, the police, and the mayor made every effort to inquire of local physicians and hospitals to help Lottie find Wooster Fay. No Wooster was found, and evidently none of the papers originated the story about which Charlotta inquired. The recommendation to Lottie was that she contact other Davenports in other states for leads to locate her brother.
… but wait! What? W. A. Fay disappeared? As a lad? With an older companion enticing him? What happened? What sort of fate did he meet? Lottie ever succeed in re-establishing contact with him? What kind of agony was experienced by his parents and his siblings, his community, his friends at Franklin Academy, and his church?
Boston Public Library
Fay Family Members
Franklin County Historical Society, Franklin, Nebraska, Angie Blank, President
Franklin Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Franklin, Nebraska
Laskin, David, The Children’s Blizzard, HarperCollins, 2004.
Wren, Christopher S., Those Turbulent Sons of Freedom: Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and the American Revolution, Simon Schuster, 2018.