"Ella Wheeler Wilcox" by Lilah Zanton
in Badger History : Wisconsin Writers. p. 23-27
Badger History, 26(1), September 1972.
Madison, WI: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, c1972.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox
by Lilah Zanton

Marcus and Sarah Wheeler and three children left their Vermont home in 1849. Weeks later they arrived in Johnstown, Wisconsin. The family rented a house from Arthur Braley, a young lawyer.

The Wheelers loved to read. Mr. Braley shared his library with them during the long winter of 1850. The couple were happy when they learned that they were going to have a baby. Sarah was certain that the child would be a daughter. The girl, she said, would grow up to become a writer. The mother was right. A daughter, Ella, was born November 5, 1850. Two years later, the family moved to a farm at Westport, a short distance north of Madison. This was the only home that Ella knew until she was married.

Though the family had little money, it was rich in other ways. Reading time was an important part of each day. Everyone was expected to use good grammar. One of Ella's friends later said, "Mr. Wheeler talked like a book." The parents encouraged their children to be tolerant of other people and ideas.

Ella loved all living things. Dolls took second place to farm animals. She especially adored kittens. Cats were an important part of her household. Ella and the neighbor girls became fine horsewomen. Because her father played for dances, Ella was allowed to dance.

Going To School

Ella attended classes in a one-room rural school. She enjoyed writing, but rarely passed arithmetic tests. Later her parents sent her to school in Madison. She remained only one term and begged to come home. Ella was aware of the differences between her drab homemade clothes and those of the city girls. She returned home in 1868. That was the end of her schooling.

Ella Begins To Write

For many years Aunt Abbey Pratt had subscribed to the New York Mercury Magazine for the Wheeler family. When Ella was fourteen, the subscription was not renewed. Ella decided to write two articles for the Mercury. She borrowed stamp money from a friend and sent the articles to the magazine. When they were accepted and published, Ella received back copies of the magazine. She then decided to write more stories and poems.

She bought a 5 cent notebook and listed newspapers and magazines in it. She sent her articles to these magazines. When a poem was turned down by one publisher, she sent it to another. Each poem was eventually printed. Once Frank Leslie's Magazine sent her forty dollars for a poem. This was her first large check. Ella decided to write one poem each day. Her first book, Drops of Water, was published in 1872. She used some of her money to dress like a "city girl."

The Ella Wheeler Wilcox school
Windsor, Wisconsin

Fame Comes To Ella

Her poems appeared in many newspapers and magazines throughout America. The young lawyer from Johnstown, Arthur Braley, had become a judge in Madison. Ella was invited to his home. Once Governor Fairchild met Ella there and said, "I wish I had two arms to put around you, little girl. I am so proud of you." (The governor had lost one arm in the Civil War.) All Wisconsin was proud of this talented young writer.

Interesting people from Milwaukee also invited Ella to visit at their homes. Once, while in Milwaukee, Ella went horseback riding. Suddenly she remembered an appointment. Was she late? Still wearing her riding clothes she dashed into a jewelry store to ask for the time of day. A silver salesman from Meriden, Conneticut was in the store. He asked who the pretty girl was. He wrote to her and she answered him. They met at friends' homes in Chicago and Milwaukee. Robert Wilcox and Ella Wheeler were married May 2, 1884.

The first three years of their marriage, the Wilcoxes lived in Meriden, Connecticut. In 1887 they had a child, but the baby boy lived only a few hours. There were no more children.

Robert and Ella moved to New York City. Here she found her poetry was being read and discussed. She made many new friends and continued writing. Her books included Sweet Danger and Poems of Pleasure.

A New Home

In 1890, the couple found a summer home. It was on the rocky shore of Short-Beach-on-the-Sound, Connecticut. First they built a large studio called "The Bungalow." Soon, however, they built a large home and four guest houses. They lived here during the five warm months of the year. They entertained many friends from New York. When Robert retired in 1906, this sea coast location became their only home.

That same year Ella began writing an advice column for the Hearst Newspapers. The editor asked her to go to Lond. Queen Victoria was dying, and Ella was to write a poem about her. Ella wrote The Queen's Last Ride. English people loved Ella and her verses. Many of the more than forty books that she wrote were reprinted in England.

After the trip to England, Robert and Ella began to travel. Between 1903 and 1913 they traveled to many places around the world. Then they returned to their home to enjoy the garden and the beach. Ella's world crumbled when Robert became ill and died in May, 1916. For the first time each day was not "the best day of her life." Ella, now lonely, traveled and visited friends. Finally, she returned to Short-Beach. After reading about American soldiers in France, she decided to go to France to comfort them. She became ill, was taken to England, and finally returned home. She died at Short-Beach on October 31, 1919. She is remembered for the sympathy and understanding that she had for other people's problems.