1997, The Milton House Museum Historic Site, Milton, Wisconsin

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The Wisconsin years of Ella Wheeler Wilcox have been called the Midwest's Golden Age of Literature. Transplanted New England cultural roots gave Wisconsin a literary flowering. Ella Wheeler Wilcox was one of the brightest blooms. It has also been said that her life was an autobiography of American history as her writings parallel social and economic changes of the Victorian Era.

Ella Wheeler's parents, Marcus and Sarah Pratt Wheeler, came from Thetford, Vermont, in June, 1849, with their three children. Ella was not born until over a year later. The Wheelers rented a house on the present County A at Scharine Corner east of Janesville. Then it was the busy Mineral Point-Milwaukee Road.

The Wheelers were intellectuals who craved reading material. Arthur Braley, their landlord and a Shakespearean scholar, shared his library with them. Before Ella's birth, Mrs. Wheeler announced that her unborn child would be a daughter, an author, and would travel and live as she, her mother, had always wanted. The Wheeler family was not suited to pioneer life. The winter of 1850, Marcus taught dancing and "manners" at an Inn a half mile west on the Milwaukee Road. he played the violin for the dances.

Ella was born November 5, 1850. In April, 1852, the Wheeler family moved to a farm at Westport, Dane County, a short distance north of Madison. Though her parents could support their children only meagerly during the Civil War years, they gave them a rich inheritance of intangibles. Reading was an important part of their daily life, and correct grammar was demanded of all. The parents' tolerant attitudes were later reflected in Ella's work, and she took pride in her heritage of health and vitality. Ella attended the local one-room school where she excelled in composition but rarely passed an arithmetic test. In 1867 her parents sent her to Madison where she was a junior in the Female College, a part of the University of Wisconsin. Ella wanted to spend all of ther time writing and begged to come home. She also was painfully aware of the difference between her homemade clothes and the dresses of city girls. After one year she was allowed to end her formal education and return home.

Aunt Abby Pratt of Johnstown had for many years subscribed to the New York Mercury for the Wheeler family. When Ella was fourteen, Aunt Abby failed to renew the subscription. This was a near tragedy as Ella had written two essays for the magazine. The essays were published. Ella obtained all the back copies of the Mercury and began to write seriously.

As soon as a rejection slip was received, a manuscript was back in the mail on its way to another periodical. One publisher, the Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper. New York, was at the bottom of her list, but sent her forty dollars. Every poem was eventually to find a publisher.

Ella became an accepted part of the literary and social life of Madison and Milwaukee. Governor fairchild gave her his personal congratulations. He had lost one arm in the Civil War, but embraced her, saying, "I wish I had two arms to put around you, little girl. I am so proud of you." Her personal popularity was indicated by financial backing from friends and the support of Milwaukee newspaper literary critics.

Ella had many suitors. The accepted suitor came unexpectedly. Robert Wilcox, a silver salesman of Meriden, Connecticut, and Ella Wheeler were married in Milwaukee May 2, 1884.

The first three years of their marriage the Wilcoxes lived in Meriden. Robert sold silver objects d'art. The third year their son Robert, Jr. was born but lived only a few hours. There were no more children, and this was the deep sorrow in their lives.

New York was their business home, but in the summer of 1890 the found the retreat they were looking for near New Haven, Connecticut. They first built a large studio called The Bungalow ad then a pretentious Victorian home and four guest houses. When Robert retired in 1906 this seacoast haven became their permanent home.

In 1906 a new life began for the Wilcoxes. Ella wrote syndicated a advice column for the Hearst Newspapers. The editor asked her to go to London to write a poem about Queen Victoria who was dying. Robert accompanied her. She wrote "The Queen's Last Ride," and from then on England remained close to her heart. Many of her books were reprinted in England by Gay and Hancock, Publishers. Ella was subsequently presented at court.

Ella and Robert spent most of their time from 1913 to 1913 traveling the world. They returned to their home to stay in 1913 and enjoyed life together. In May of 1916, Robert contracted pneumonia and died suddenly. They had been a very devoted couple and now Ella's life was turned upside down.

They had studied spiritualism together and now Ella was seeking messages from Robert. After traveling around the United States she was unable to find anyone to help her so she returned home. Ella felt that Robert was telling her to go to France to comfort the American Soldiers. Against the advice of friends, she went.

She had not been well for several years. In France she became seriously ill, was taken to England, and then returned home where she died of cancer on October 31, 1919.

Updated 20NOV1997