We're not in Kansas anymore or The original Sunday Driver
George LeFevre Senior was born on March 1, 1859 in Clintondale, a small town near New Paltz, Ulster County New York. As a child he received some education, apparently remaining in school until around the age of fifteen or sixteen.
He moved with his parents to New Hurley, Ulster County New York between 1860 and 1870 and in about 1877 he moved with them in the town of Walden, Orange County New York (which, luck would have it, was right where a certain young girl named Josephine Knapp was living...).
It was probably as a child that George developed the severe asthma and excema which would haunt him for the rest of his life. George was known as a kind and conscientious person, and was also described as quiet and rather meek. As an adult he was often found with a cigar or pipe in his mouth, puffing happily away and gossiping with neighbors. He appears to have been somewhat of a lackadaisical character by all accounts!
Josephine Towsend Knapp was born on November 7, 1858 in Walden, Orange County, New York. Her baptismal record, located in the archives of the Walden Dutch Reformed Church, states that she was born in October 1858. However, there is a firm family tradition, backed up by a letter Josephine herself wrote and also by something that her son Wallace wrote, that she was born on November 7.
She attended a fair amount of school as a child, and was a graduate of Professor Mulford's Academy in Walden (whether this was grammar school or high school cannot be ascertained. Census records indicate that most of the Knapp family attended school until around the age of seventeen or eighteen). It was probably as a young girl that she began her habit of keeping a diary, and until old age she started a new one every year. She apparently did not write much of what we would today consider a diary (feelings and opinions) but instead noted daily occurrences without comment. At least that is what she told her granddaughter, Kay LeFevre Miller.
Josephine also loved to read, especially the paper (she eagerly awaited delivery of the New York Herald every day), and throughout her life loved to talk about the news and about politics-- unusual interests for a woman of that period. Both she and her husband were "rock Republicans." They hated Franklin Roosevelt, calling his social programs "alphabet soup," but their greatest scorn was reserved for Al Smith, the failed presidential candidate and Governor of New York. Josephine and George were also ardent prohibitionists who abstained from intoxicating drinks.
Josephine was not as kind as her husband (although she was far from mean) and had a forceful and feisty personality.
How George LeFevre met Josephine Knapp we do not know. In any case they were married on December 7, 1882 in Walden, Orange County New York, at the home of Josephine's parents (which still stands today as a restaurant). George and his wife always seemed to get along very well. He affectionately called her "Josie" and she returned the complement by referring to him as "Pop" in later years. Other relatives called Josephine "Jo."
Josephine was a hard worker, managing the house with skill. Monday was wash day. Josie liked to do her laundry outdoors or on the porch, but the machine was kept down in the basement; every Sunday night George had to haul it upstairs for her. Later they purchased one of the earliest Maytag washing machines. On Tuesday she did her ironing. On Wednesday she did her mending. Thursday was reserved for having company (the LeFevres were known as good hosts and everyone loved Josie's cooking) or for visiting people. On Friday she did the housework and on Saturday she baked. In all of her long life, Josie rarely varied from this routine.
Josephine was a wonderful cook. She made delicious pies and also did a lot of canning. What free time Josie had was spent gardening, which she was also very good at. In later years, when the family moved to Berea, her gardens would grow to a huge size. It is a shame that no color photos exist of them, although we do have many in black and white.
After their marriage, George and Josie settled for a few years in the town of New Hurley, Ulster County New York, where he was a farmer. It seems probable that he worked or owned the same farm there where his father (Jacob Lefever) lived as late as 1877 before he retired to Walden.
In 1885, the family moved to Lincoln, Lincoln County Kansas. George and Josephine joined the Presbyterian Church there on August 9. Their reasons for making the move are unclear, but perhaps they were influenced by two of Josephine's sisters who had moved there not long before. Things did not go well and, in later years, Josie would recall that they had been promised things in Kansas that they had never received. Their son Wallace also became very ill from bad well water and, in 1888, a severe blizzard blazed a path of destruction over the state. In November of 1889, the LeFevres returned to New York, this time settling in Middletown, Orange County.
George purchased a house at 15 Watkins Avenue (below), with a mortgage, sometime before the 1900 census. From the few photos we have, it appears to have been a large and comfortable home*. He opened or bought a grocery, coal and fuel business, and Josephine turned much of the backyard into a garden.
George became a member of the Old Knights of Pythias and of the Christ Church, Universalist. However, neither he nor his wife were very religious, at least not openly so. When their son married a Catholic and when he later chose to convert to that religion they accepted his decision, which was a remarkable example of toleration in those days. Both family tradition and documentary evidence point to a very close relationship between Josephine LeFevre and her Catholic daughter-in-law Mary Whelan LeFevre; they wrote letters back and forth every week and got along very well according to Mary's daughter Katherine. A postcard fromo Josie to Mary bears the signature "lovingly, Mother."
In 1907 they held a reception to commemorate their 25th wedding anniversary at their home in Middletown. They must have been fairly prosperous at the time as they had rather fancy invitations printed up for the occaision.
In about 1909 or 1910, the LeFevres moved again, this time to Berea, Orange County New York, where George became the farm superintendent for his nephew, C. B. Hill. Under George's careful management, the farm prospered. One year it had the largest haystacks in the town and other crops won prizes too. George was several times made master of the local Grange (farmer's association) in which Josephine was also very active for many years.
The family lived in a large seven bedroom house (it was on what is now Route 17K but was demolished shortly after the LeFevres moved out, though the farm itself is now a museum) which they rented (probably from the Hills), and Josie was able to expand her gardens (she had four or five, complete with ponds and paths and arches and won many prizes for them at Orange County Fairs). They had two pianos (neither played, although George did sing a little), and two living rooms, as well as a four bedroom bungalow near the house. In later years a miniature golf course was built near Josie's garden by her son Wallace for younger visitors to enjoy.
In the early years of their residence in Berea, the LeFevres did without electricity and indoor plumbing. The bathroom was an outhouse amongst the Lilac bushes. Later a large downstairs bedroom was converted into a bathroom.
On the farm, George wore a wide brimmed straw hat, but whenever he went into town to do the shopping or to take care of other business he got dressed up and put on his Panama hat, unlike many other area farmers. In the early days he used a horse and buggy, but later the family purchased a Star car; one of the first found in the area. Driving was a terrifying experience, both for George and for his hapless passengers. He was so nervous about hitting another car that he never went above twenty miles an hour. Yet George rarely watched the road, preferring to gaze at and gossip about neighbor's cornfields or puff on one of his ever-present cigars.
A small slice of life on the Hill farm is presented in Josephine's only letter known to survive. Written in November of 1918, it discusses the false armistice at the end of World War One which occured on the shared birthday of Josephine and her granddaughter Katherine (to whom the letter was written). Of the events surrounding the day she wrote "... had a big time around here, could hear the whistles from all around here. Grandpa started the engin [sic] in his car and tooted the horn everybody yelled as they went by cars had flags every place they could put one. Floyd [a farm worker] took our old flag and draped it on one side of the horse when they went to town in the evening. Of course we went to Montgomery [a nearby town] to see the parade. We all enjoyed it as much as tho [sic] the news was really true. Now we will have to do it all over again... Maby [sic] our Soldier boys will soon be coming home. I heard this evening that 7 empty transports sailed yesterday for France, and Thursday several recd [sic] a wireless to return that were only a short way out from Hoboken with troops on. Maby when you get this letter Monday the whistles will be blowing again and next time we wont [sic] be fooled. I just hope Uncle George [Josephine's son George LeFevre who was in the war] gets his Xmas. Warren Sands [GLF's father-in-law] has sent his cable so his box can get off. And all the nice things your mother has sent and grandpa's cigars, and if your father sends smokes too won't he think it is a real Xmas."
Of her life on the farm, Josephine wrote "I can't tell you how pleased I was to receive your nice birthday gift. I will keep the pretty hadkerchiefs for extra occasions... Your very nice letter came this morning Katherine. My but you are getting a lot of Thrift Stamps. They are good things to have...What do you suppose grandma has been doing today, up on top of the long hen house helping Grandpa take the paper off it wasn't so steep but that I could walk all over it and Ive [sic] had bon fires too [for burning leaves]. You children would enjoy raking leaves the yard is covered. Grandpa put up the coal stove today and we have a nice coke fire. That may burn just as well as coal..."
She closed her letter on an affectionate note: "Katherine you sure are a smart girl to have such perfect lessons. Now if you only had a piano and learned to play as well as you learn your lessons we would soon have a musician in the family again. Good night little folks, and lots of love to you from Grandma.... Mary [either her daughter-in-law or granddaughter] write Grandma a little note when it gets near your birthday. Grandmas [sic] memory is so poor."
In 1932, George and Josephine celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary at their home, and it may have been at about this time that they took the only vacation of their lives. At first reluctant to go, their son, George H. LeFevre, wheedled them into it. George and Josie took a train out to California to visit Josephine's sister. They had a good time, although neither quite felt up to taking a swim in the Pacific (by one account Josephine did, but by another it was her sister who took the plunge). They returned by boat, going through the Panama Canal and arriving at New York where they were met by their daughter-in-law Mary Whelan LeFevre. They spent the night with her and their son in Newark, New Jersey. George remarked that her cooking was better than anything that he had tasted on the trip, and both marveled at the "big city."
In about 1934, George and his wife retired and moved in with their son George at 20 Highland Avenue in Walden (below).
Although Josie had to use a cane after she reached the age of 85, she refused to give up her gardening and asked her son George to build her a rock garden out in the backyard. He at first refused, fearing that she might "fall and break her neck." He eventually gave in to his mother's request though, after consulting her doctor who told him that if she broke her neck, at least she would die happy. Josephine's granddaughter, Katherine Miller, stated that by that time in her life, gardening was her one true pleasure.
George LeFevre Sr. died at his home on April 19, 1939 after a short illness. He was eighty years old. Josie survived him by many years, not dying until September 8, 1948, just a few months short of her ninetieth birthday. She was buried beside her late husband in Walkill Valley Cemetery, and for some reason her obituary was carried in the New York Times.
Today, no one is certain what became of her diaries. They may be in the possession of Virginia LeFevre of Walden who is the widow of George Jr. from his second marriage. Efforts are being made to ascertain if this is true or not.
* It was still standing as of 1977.
The car was mentioned in a letter Josie wrote in 1918 talking about festivities at the end of World War One. To read her letter, click here!
No, she did not fall and break her neck while gardening, but died at home, perhaps of pneumonia, or what was then generally termed old age. It is not known if she suffered a long illness of not. In 1940, she was well enough to visit her granddaughter in Rochester, New York and photos taken in 1942 and 1943 show her sitting outside with her grandchildren, looking fairly healthy.
I-Wallace Ropes LeFevre
II- George Hawkins LeFevre (dates not included as his widow
is still living)