This piece was written by Stephanie Jones about her second great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth (Freeman) Dolson. Stephanie currently resides in Germany but has been actively helping the cemetery identify and link generations of her family that is buried here.
Village old-timers might remember a tiny, wooden house that once sat on the edge of the Washingtonville Cemetery grounds. A precious few might also recall seeing an elderly couple taking a rest on the porch or catching a breeze in the summer heat. The house and the couple are long gone, but I remember them well—George and Mamie Dolson.
Even in my 1960s childhood, my great-great-granduncle George and Aunt Mamie seemed ancient, as did their tiny house. Back then, little did I know the cemetery and its house held more family history than I’d imagined. Turns out that Uncle George “inherited” his position as cemetery caretaker from his father, and that my great-great-grandparents Albert and Mary Elizabeth Freeman Dolson had lived there before him.
Born in 1842 before the invention of today’s labor-easing power tools, Albert’s life as the cemetery groundskeeper and gravedigger couldn’t have been easy. Indeed, at the ripe old age of 87, the 1930 federal census still lists him as a cemetery employee. As for my great-great-grandmother, I know precious little about Mary Elizabeth, but she was born in 1857 and was the mother of eleven children, one assumes her life was no cakewalk. And yet, from what I have gleaned, I am certain of a few things about Mary Elizabeth—or Libbie, as she was affectionately called.
In her life, she drew from a deep well of inner strength. She worked hard. And she was a loving presence that sustained her entire family. Personal loss accompanied much of Libbie’s life. In December 1863, her father Charles Louis Freeman joined the U.S. Colored Troops to fight for the Union Army. He was 29 years old, and his daughter was a mere eight years old. Only nine months later, Charles Freeman died in a regimental hospital in Carrollton, Louisiana, having succumbed to a common condition among soldiers—diarrhea. His death came three days before Libbie’s ninth birthday.
Raised by her widowed mother Caroline Robinson Freeman, Libbie grew to adulthood and married Albert Dolson. Together the couple had eleven children, four of whom they were to witness die young. Son Louis H. Dolson—undoubtedly named with Libbie’s father in mind—died at seven years old in 1886. Fourteen years later, tragedy struck again in one fell swoop when Libbie and Albert’s teenage daughters Alice, Bertha, and Anna died on February 1st, February 3rd, and April 6th respectively. My grandaunt Rachel Decker once told me the girls died of Black Measles. Without death certificates, it’s impossible to know the cause of death, but it seems obvious some infectious disease took the girls.
Also self-evident is that Libbie must have mourned this triple loss terribly. Still, some deep inner strength kept her going, though I cannot imagine myself ever being so strong. Perhaps, her other children gave her purpose in this world and the will to go on.
All federal censuses list Libbie Freeman Dolson as a wife with no outside work. Gainful employment or no, even today with all our modern conveniences, birthing and caring for eleven children is no mean feat. Imagine how it must have been in the late 1800s.
Remember that tiny, wooden house? When my 95-year-old Uncle George left it for a nursing home around 1965, the house still had no indoor plumbing. So the womenfolk made do with a hand pump for water and an outhouse for … you get the picture. While she didn’t raise her own children in this house, it’s probably safe to assume her previous homes also had no inside plumbing, just as it was for so many at the turn of the nineteenth century.
If one sits for even a few seconds and imagines all that Libbie Freeman Dolson must have done in her home, it’s mind-boggling—to cook for so many, wash dishes and pots, draw water for baths, wash dirty diapers and everyone’s clothes (including her grave-digging husband), keep the place clean, and try to find a peaceful moment. Just the daily workload was a mountain whose summit one never reaches—for her and all women, then or now. And yet, Libbie was indeed more than wife and mother.
While the federal censuses list her as wife, one lonely New York census reveals Libbie had another job. In 1915, she worked as a laundress outside the home. It is uncertain how long she laundered for others, but by this time, she was about sixty years old. So, instead of looking forward to retirement in her sixties as many of us do, she went out to work. And still, she managed to be a constant source of love and comfort for her children.
In 1918, Libbie’s daughter Stella lost her husband Lewis Decker in a horrible accident. A truck driver for J.B. Lunney’s ice business in Washingtonville, Lewis was kicked by the ice truck’s horse. My great-grandfather developed pneumonia and died a few days later at St. Luke’s Hospital at the age of 27—leaving Stella alone to raise three little girls. Libbie stepped in to help her daughter and grandchildren, taking all four into her Washingtonville Cemetery home. Soon there was another daughter, and a few years later, a great-grandchild—my mother—all living with Libbie and Albert. In the one picture we have of Libbie, one can sense her love and devotion—and perhaps, concern— as she looks down on the fatherless granddaughters she helped raise.
Nowadays, the cemetery’s tiny, wooden house and its outhouse and water pump are but long-ago and far-away memories. Even as I repeatedly kicked myself for not having the foresight to snap a shot of it myself, no pictures of the house have surfaced, despite my best efforts to track one down. Nevertheless, at least one memory survives from Libbie and Albert’s place. One day, in the basement of my grandmother Lillian’s house, I spied a dilapidated, old rocker. When my grandmother told me it had come from Uncle George’s house, I asked could I have it. Her one condition: I must refurbish it.
Together, my grandmother and I picked out new fabric to replace the torn leather upholstery. My grandmother found an upholsterer and a wicker restorer. After it was finished, I left the rocker with her to enjoy. Now it is with me in Germany, and whenever I cast my gaze on it, I think of Uncle George and Aunt Mamie. And I think especially of Mary Elizabeth and Albert.
Now buried in the Washingtonville Cemetery, only steps from where she lived, Mary Elizabeth Freeman Dolson died ninety years ago, coincidentally in this month of International Women’s Day. But when I sit in my rocker and imagine myself in the same chair as my great-great-grandmother Libbie did all those years ago, I feel close to her and sense her continued loving presence in my life. And each time, I consciously honor her strength and express my profound gratitude to her for all her efforts on our family’s behalf that have reverberated into the future.