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  • Donna Hanson

The Silk Weaver's Daughter: a Hero in the Family.


Wind howled against her first-floor apartment window as Margarett cleared the table from the afternoon meal. She hummed softly as the baby slept in a wooden milk crate lined with a soft blue and cream knit blanket. They'd been up most of the night with a cough that had settled in little Harry's chest, like the demon who'd taken the baby born just the year before, blue as a cornflower and still as a moonless night, he passed before taking his first breath. Margarett shuddered at the thought and reached into the salt jar for a pinch to throw over her shoulder and into the eye of the Devil.


Storms off the coast of New Jersey brought an uncommon chill to the air, but it was August and she hesitated to light the kerosene stove in the center of the room for warmth. The fuel they would expend would buy a dozen eggs or a block of cheese and so she tucked another blanket around the sleeping child. Fuel oil had been a luxury this winter with thousands of silk workers unemployed from the mills. Her husband, William, had been lucky though, turning his skills with tools into an opportunity to work on fishing boats always in need of repair. What the captains couldn't pay in coin, they supplemented in fish ensuring hot chowder for the family. But the morning's storms had sent the entire harbor to sea for safety as warnings of hurricanes passed along the boardwalk from ship to sailor until nothing remained but empty lobster cages and the rattle of surf pounding the pier. Nothing to be done here today, he nodded to the angry seas and turned for home.


Nellie, the eldest of the twins, arranged tattered diapers, socks, and dressing gowns into cardboard boxes marked with each child's name: Nellie, Millie, Donald, Lilly, and baby Harry. The older children: Thomas, Amy Rose, and Henry left school after the eighth grade to live in the tenements provided for Barbour Mill workers. Their boxes now held potatoes and a few carrots. In a corner of the room, her twin Millie worked a skein of yarn into balls and then placed them, one in a basket to be dyed, and the others into a basket to be boiled. Boiling made the yarn tight and waterproof, perfect for winter coats and slippers.


Suddenly, there was a loud thump that rattled the ceiling raining pieces of plaster and torn wallpaper across the room. A woman screamed from the apartment above them, "Fire! Help! Oh..."


Margarett ran into the hall as Mrs. Bogertman, the building's manager, called "Oh Margarett...the stove! It's...oh, help me!"


"Nellie!" Margarett called, "Gather the children! Take them to..."


"The bakery! Yes...Millie, help...I'll..." she replied over her shoulder.


Millie gathered the sleeping baby in a bundle as Nellie reached for a quilt from her bed and raced up the staircase to help smother the fire. She watched as the two women carried the burning stove to the fire escape, throwing it out the open window and down the stairs and onto the empty street. Flames from burning pools of kerosene licked at Margarett's skirts running up her small frame until she glowed bright as a candle.


"Mother!" Nellie screamed. Her mother turned and smiled before collapsing.


"You saved us." Mrs. Bogertman cried smothering the flames in the quilt.


"We," Margarett whispered. "the children?"


"The children. The whole apartment, dear. You saved us."


*****


My second great-grandmother, Margarett Maria Johnston died on August 21, 1893 from injuries sustained in an apartment fire on August 5th. Her act of bravery not only saved her landlord, but she prevented the fire from spreading to the entire tenement and potentially injuring dozens of families.


Whether you're a writer looking for inspiration, or a family historian seeking to understand yourself and your family's history, I would encourage you to try to, as much as possible, read about the cities where they lived, find out where they worked and how they lived. It shows honor to your ancestor and at least in my case, makes me strive to be a better person. Someone that would have made Margarett proud.


Thank you, Grandmother.


Death of Margarett Holt
Paterson Daily News, August 22, 1893.




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