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The Eltings

By: Brace Pattou

The Elting family heritage began for me on April 28, 1892, when the marriage in Yonkers, New York, of Edith Hulbert Elting and Albert Brace Pattou took place.

They were mismatched in length of time their families had been in the New World. Jan Elting, Edith's progenitor, came to America in 1657. The bridegroom's father, Ange Albert Pattou, emigrated from Belgium in 1857, exactly two centuries later.

Evidently they were mismatched in much more profound ways. The marriage didn't last very long. It did, however, bring the Pattous some colorful, successful, handsome Elting relatives.

The Eltings' beginnings in America center in New Paltz, an upstate New York community whose Huguenot Street is a tourist attraction as the street with the oldest stone houses in the U.S.

New Paltz dates from 1677. It was settled by French Huguenots who fled the religious persecution of the Sun King, Louis XIV. New Paltz was so named because in the first leg of their journey to the New World they stopped in Germany, specifically in Pflaz, known also as the Palatinate. Twelve of these French Calvinists were the original New Paltz patentees, so called because of the royal patent they obtained from the English colonial government.

What a wonderful heritage, I thought in youth. Here I am descended from free thinking Frenchmen, some of whom suffered in the 1572 St. Bartholomew's massacre. My forebears, I thought, braved Louis's sword for their beliefs and were among the dozen elite pioneers clasping hands and paying the Indians fairly for a 40,000-acre foothold in the New World. The Indians received a whole laundry list of useful items, including 40 axes, 40 kettles, 100 knives, 100 needles, and four kegs of wine, two horses, and a whole lot else.

I later learned my notion of French origins was wrong. Those pioneer Eltings weren't French. They were Dutch, subject to no persecution in tolerant Holland. Jan Elting was born in the northern part of Holland in 1632. And yes he was there in New Paltz for the 1677 treaty signing with the Esopus Indians. But he was there as a witness, not as an original patentee. Evidently Jan, the man who got it all started for us Eltings in America, was a Dutch farmer impelled to emigrate by an agricultural depression. A different scenario entirely!

Although there were no Eltings among the twelve patentees, the Elting family played an important part in the history of New Paltz. In almost every one of the original families there is a connection with the Dutch Eltings.

Eltings were the marrying kind, and who was better or more convenient to marry than a patentee family neighbor? It started with Roelif Elting, Jan's son. In the early 1700s he married Sarah DuBois, daughter of Louis DuBois, one of the big twelve. The Eltings were on their way, later marrying into the Freer and Bevier families, two other patentee families.

In its earliest years the DuBois family had some harrowing times, including the capture and near death by fire of Catharine, wife of Louis DuBois. A normally peaceable Esopus Indian clan, provoked by a British military atrocity, burned a Huguenot village. They led away six women, including Catharine with baby Sara nursing at her breast. An armed posse, with Louis in the vanguard, came to the rescue.

Catharine, chosen the first to die because of her "formidable temper," was about to be burned with baby Sara atop a pyre. Before the torch was applied, the searchers found her, directed by her loud hymn singing as she prepared to meet her Calvinist God. That was in 1663, a rude introduction to the New World and 14 years before the DuBois and other families were awarded the tract of land centering on New Paltz.

The twelve patentees, who had fled France via the Palatinate in Germany and Holland, were conservative, educated people who built their houses of stone. My romantic view of freethinkers casting off the bondage to Rome is O.K. up to a point. However, these Huguenot forefathers exchanged the Pope for John Calvin, a 16th century reformer who had some rules and regulations of his own.

It's been said that followers of Calvin were barred from everything but heaven. His Dutch Reformed Church proscribed theatre, bright colors in dress, card playing, dancing, and a lot else. God judged every act of man, and an unsmiling austerity was the order of the day.

Parishioners of the Dutch Reformed Church, as most Huguenots became, were expected to have little to do with outsiders. Or, as the late comic novelist Peter De Vries (1910-93), himself the son of a Calvinist minister, wrote: "We, the elect, weren't supposed to mix with others and had, in fact, considerable trouble mixing with one another."

To this day stands the Bevier-Elting House built in 1698 by patentee Louis Bevier. This and the Elting Memorial Library and the Elting family burying ground make New Paltz an emotional center for Elting relatives. My grandmother, mother, father, sister, and countless Elting relatives are buried in New Paltz as I wish to be. A bench was installed in the cemetery in 1997 in honor of my sister Mardo.

For four or five generations the Eltings stayed close to the land. In 1852 my great grandfather Ezekiel, however, took the brave step of leaving his father's farm and seeking work in New York City. At age 16 he clerked in a dry goods store and several years later with a partner opened a store in downtown Yonkers. It was, first, "Vail & Elting" and, later, "E. J. Elting & Brother."

Great grandfather "Zeke" made a successful invasion of the city. In 1876, when he was 40 years old, he announced his retirement. He had amassed $100,000 and felt he needed no more. Did his first wife's death in 1874, two years before his retirement, contribute a legacy to his retirement nest egg? I must not speculate. Zeke died in 1913 having had a full 40 years of retirement as a gentleman living in a large brick house in Yonkers, then at its zenith as "Queen City of the Hudson."

As I grew up in my parents' Midwest house, I had varying degrees of contact with and awareness of three seniors who embodied the traits I identified with the Elting side of my family.

There was my paternal grandmother, Edith Elting Pattou, daughter of Ezekiel. She deserves and has received a separate accounting in these family histories. I was 17 when she died in 1940 and I met her, to the best of my recollection only three times, twice on her visits to Lake Forest and once in New Paltz. Gamma Edie visited us at 701 Kennington Terrace in Lake Forest. I know it was in summer because I remember she angered me by criticizing my lawn mowing. From her perspective at an open third floor window, she called out to me where I'd missed a strip of lawn with the hand mower.

My live-in Peck grandparents would never carp like this to a Grandson. Da routinely judged me "100 per cent in everything." Sadly, I don't remember her visit with pleasure. Nor do I think it was a great success for my parents. They sensed that Gamma Edie's cosmopolitanism fitted awkwardly with the Pattous' Saturday night bridge club.

Then there were the so-called "Chicago Eltings," of whom my father was one. It was Philip LeFevre Elting who first left Yonkers for Chicago in 1887 or 1888. I don't remember meeting him, but I must have. He died in the early 1930s. He lived much of his life in Chicago and used to drive his family to New Paltz in the summers. To me Philip Elting was a powerful distant figure who gave my father the family paint company job that made Chicagoans of us. He sold his Adams & Elting Co. to the Glidden Company in 1929 for a reported $1 million.

My father spoke of his Uncle Philip with great respect and affection. He said Philip sometimes stuttered and that he had a New York accent whereby "harmony" came out "hominey."

But the Elting senior who made the strongest impression on me was Victor M. Elting, my father's Uncle Vic and the younger brother--by a year--of my grandmother Edith.

As a boy I saw him from time to time. He lived in Winnetka, and we lived in Lake Forest, suburbs not ten miles apart. Two of his three sons--Victor, Jr. and Winston--lived in Lake Forest after their marriages.

He was, first of all, my rich great uncle, someone I sensed my father had to defer to but at the same time didn't want to live too close to. Hence, our settling in Lake Forest at a remove from Winnetka.

In my grandmother's diary, there are frequent grateful references to her brother's presents to his nephews. When Dad was six, Uncle Victor's Christmas present to him was a "stunning sailor suit made to order at Peter Thomson's in Philadelphia."

Uncle Vic was strikingly handsome, had piercing eyes, and a hawk-like nose rivaling Julius Caesar's. He wore tweeds and cultivated the arts of friendship, leisure, and fun. He had a patrician bearing and an unmistakable air of self-satisfaction.

He had a right to some self-congratulation. He'd arrived in Chicago in 1892 with a law degree, short of funds, but by his account, "full of ambition, health, and energy." Reading his 1940 autobiography, RECOLLECTIONS OF A GRANDFATHER, one is struck by his swift social ascent. On his arrival in Chicago, he knew only two people, his cousin Philip and a college friend. Yet three years later he was one of the young Chicagoans who organized the Saddle & Cycle Club. Records of this bicycle club's 1895 founding say Victor was in "a flourishing legal practice and was an accomplished amateur athlete, having in 1894 beaten the American lawn 
tennis champion in straight sets."

His love of nature was strong. He was always ready for a camping trip with friends. A high point in his professional career was a close call in securing a federal judgeship. He was pushed for the appointment by an older Winnetka friend, Walter L. Fisher, who was Secretary of the Interior in William Howard Taft's administration.

In 1911 Victor visited Washington and had a private meeting with President Taft.

Nomination to the bench was assured except for the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who took office in 1913, removing Victor's Republican sponsorship.

In earlier years Victor had served as Master in Chauncery in the Chicago courts. Perhaps this time as a Judge's clerk and helper made him think of the attractions of judicial life.

Friendship and merit weren't enough. But being an Elting family member usually meant never having to read the help wanted classified ads. Vice President Hale Holden's friendship with Uncle Victor gave Dad a memorable 1913 summer job working a handcar for the Chicago, Burling & Quincy Railroad Co. The Princeton connection landed Victor, Jr. his first Quaker Oats job and a career that put him in advertising's Hall of Fame.

My brother Gerald, fresh out of college, effortlessly gained employment at one of Quaker's ad agencies thanks to Victor, Jr. 

He was active in the running of his suburb's city government. During his Chicago years Uncle Victor helped organize the forward-looking Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. He served for a time as president of the board of trustees of Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois.

Sometimes I wondered why Victor's sister, the child of the same affluent Yonkers dry goods merchant "Zeke" Elting, fell so far short of her brother's prosperity. Being a grass widow didn't help, I know, but there was another reason. It turns out that the reason for their different circumstances was not to be found in his law practice versus her book royalties. The answer is on page 112 of his 232-page autobiography.

"In 1903," he writes, "I fell in love with Marie Winston Walker, my friend from the early Chicago days. Early in the nineties she had married Wirt Dexter Walker of Chicago. At the time of their marriage he was totally blind, and she had given him her utter devotion during the three or four years that he lived. They had no children and lived during the summer on his beautiful country estate, Blythewood, outside of Pittsfield, Massachusetts."

In short, my great uncle's wife came to him with a sizeable dowry realized in part from an earlier marriage. Following their marriage on August 1, 1904, Victor was able to indulge tastes not possible for most young men coming to Chicago in 1892 with, as he wrote, "slender means."

Thus it was that the Eltings I knew added wealth to the luster of their 17th century origins in America. They were liberal and curious. Mostly they married "up" in financial scale.

In making this much of first husband Walker, I've skipped over the Winston family. Marie was the daughter of General Frederick Hampden Winston. Besides having been a Civil War General, he was another of those late 19th century Chicago lawyers who really hauled it in. Uncle Vic noted in his memoirs, "the Winston house on Superior Street (Chicago) had been a great center of gaiety and Marie herself had been what was then called a 'belle'." The Winston family itself is a worthy subject for separate reporting. From the bits and pieces I've heard, it's a story dominated by women with passion, eccentricity, and self-reliance.

If I seem to suggest that Elting men have had an eye for large dowries, Uncle Victor himself has spoken out wryly and candidly on this subject.

In his REFLECTIONS OF A GRANDFATHER, he mentions Roelif's marriage in 1703 to Sarah DuBois. She was the daughter and only child of Abraham DuBois, a wealthy farmer. "Thereby," Victor wrote, "setting an example to his descendants by way of marrying a rich wife."

Precedent-setting Roelif had a lot to bequeath in his 1745 will, including "my Negro man" to his son Noah and "a Negro girl" to his daughter Margaret. By the time Roelif's son Josia came to write a will, his estate's slaves had at least acquired names, "Jack" and "Jim."

On this subject Louis DuBois deserves special mention. If the twelve original patentees had a first among equals, it was he. Louis DuBois was a leader. He had been longest in America; he was politically astute and a good bargainer.

As an Elting relation he here is recognized for two major contributions to improving the lot of slaves. Uncle Victor recounts in his RECOLLECTIONS that when Louis died, he bequeathed a slave girl to his wife with the instruction that if the girl was faithful, she should be given her freedom on the death of her mistress. This, Uncle Vic said, is believed to be the first instance of manumission in the U.S.

The second great Elting contribution to black history also comes from our DuBois kinship. The light-skinned, brilliant William Edward Burghardt DuBois 1868-1963) is generally considered the most influential spokesman for his race in the 20th century. "W. E. B.," as he was known, was descended from Jacques DuBois, brother of Louis, the original New Paltz patentee and an Elting ancestor.

One of Jacques' descendants, James DuBois, who was born about 1750, became a physician and moved from America to the Bahamas. There he fathered W. E. B.'s grandfather, Alexander DuBois. The mother? In his autobiography, W. E. B. said that most likely she was a slave he took as a concubine or else "a free Negro he married."

W. E. B. DuBois is the man who set the stage for the 1960s civil rights movement. He did this by challenging the creed of Booker T. Washington. Known as the "Great Accommodator," Washington counseled his fellow blacks to accept second-class citizenship, legal segregation, and a kind of hardworking subservience to the white majority.

DuBois said no to this. A man of exceptional intellect and courage, he said, writing at the outbreak of World War I: "War is Hell, but there are things worse than Hell, as every Negro knows." He was a militant who earlier than most challenged the white conscience.

But to return to Eltings I personally knew. Life was definitely not Hell in the household of great Uncle Victor. He planted his flag in suburban Winnetka.

By then he and Marie had married in Geneva, Switzerland, on August 1, 1904. From his account in RECOLLECTIONS OF A GRANDFATHER, they had 28 years of idyllic life and marriage until Marie's sudden death during a Paris visit in 1932.

One family account is that Marie died while trying on a hat at the Paris fashion house of Elsa Schiaparelli. Uncle Vic's autobiography says an embolism struck her while a nurse was combing her hair on the day of her release from a Paris hospital after a mild infection.

First renting, the Eltings built a Winnetka house in 1910. At this English-style house on a wooded five-acre tract, they raised their three sons, Victor, Jr., Winston, and John. Handsome, well-dressed men, they put me in mind of the brothers in BEAU GESTE. Contributing to this association was a tweediness and athleticism and the boys' reference to their father as "Guv" or, sometimes, "Herk," as in Hercules. Not for them the golf course. They played tennis and were masters of canoeing Indian style, hiking forest trails, and sculling.

There was a British country house feel to it. Victor and Marie dressed formally for dinner every night. Games, not bridge, were played at dinner parties. Weekend matches were played on their tennis court. People made much of writing rhymes for special occasions, and Uncle Victor excelled as a versifier.

Somehow the most compelling symbol to me of Victor and Marie's good life was their espousal of primitive living in their choice of a vacation home. In 1913 they built a cabin as members of the Huron Mountain Club, a forested encampment about 20 miles northwest of Detroit.

My parents told me that the club, open mostly to wealthy families in Detroit and Chicago, was so exclusive that carmaker Henry Ford's application had had to wait for a vacancy. The club's 24,000 acres housed bear, wolf, wildcat, beaver, coyote, mink, otter, weasel, muskrat, skunk, and woodchuck. For Uncle Vic it must have been a journey back to childhood in New Paltz.

My father and I visited Huron Mountain in 1940. I remember the absolute darkness (no electricity, only kerosene lamps) and the stillness. I wondered what was meant by "virgin timber." We visited Winston and first wife Marjorie at "a camp" on a mountain lake. I fell in love with blonde and beautiful Marjorie, had trouble mastering a sleeping bag, and was fascinated by photos of deer and other wild animals staring wide-eyed as a camera flash caught them on a trip-wire. On the drive back to Lake Forest, Dad sang songs from SHOW BOAT, which I think had just opened.

Uncle Victor was unapologetic about the good life, whether in woodlands or Winnetka. His candid comment in his autobiography was: "We gave the boys the opportunities of rich men's sons and we indulged ourselves in everything that we desired."

The "boys" went to Princeton, and Winston studied architecture for three years at the Beaux Arts in Paris. Victor, Jr. made his entire career at the Quaker Oats Company, where he rose to manage a very large advertising budget and became a national leader in advertising's self-regulation.

Uncle Victor, widowed at age 61, lived for 25 more years and did not remarry. At first he lived in Chicago, then moved to an apartment in New York. At the end of his life, he moved back to the Chicago area, where his sons were, and lived until his death in a suite in the Deerpath Inn in suburban Lake Forest, attended by a live-in houseman. My father, then living half a block away, was one of his uncle's most frequent visitors.

In his New York days, we are told, he dated Katharine Hepburn's mother. He was a romantic. In his autobiography he devotes a good deal of attention to two pre-Marie Winston loves--Caroline Law, "a serious affair," 1888; and Harmony Twitchell, 1901. On a wall in his Manhattan apartment hung a framed 100-year-old political banner that delighted him and mirrored his outlook. It read "Liberty of Individual Conduct Unvexed by Sumptuary Laws."

Uncle Victor's death at age 85 closed my contact with that generation, but happily, Elting associations soon became friendships, not just ancestral symbols for me. My sense of family Elt- was greatly encouraged by "Cousin Ruth," Ruth Elting Winter, daughter of my father's benefactor, Philip Elting.

Ruth had the energy, the desire, the enthusiasm, and the hospitality to keep us Elting relatives in contact. Her brother, Byron Elting, her daughter Anne Sheldon Vivarelli, son Wallace "Wally" Winter, and I were brought together, thanks to Ruth, at Sunday and holiday meals. They were a good-humored, contentious crew, and it was fun.

Today, many generations later, I'm glad Edith married "Bert" Pattou in 1892. I'm glad, too, that my Elting ancestor found his way to the Hudson Valley and began procreating with such Calvinist zeal. I am told by the Elting Family genealogist that there are records of 16,000 descendants of old Jan and his one-way ticket to Rip Van Winkle country.

This article copyright Brace Pattou.

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