A grandmother’s tea party from over 100 years ago comes to life through historical research

A photograph from 1908 of 19 women having a 'Grandmother's tea party' spurred a search by local historian Dan Davidson to identify as many as possible.
Courtesy photo / Museum of Northwest Colorado

What were nineteen women in a turn-of-the-century photograph doing dressed like a bunch of women from the early 19th century?

Dan Davidson had to know.

“This is a strange picture,” said Davidson, the director of Craig’s Museum of Northwest Colorado. “If you look at them — it never made any sense.”

A photograph from 1908 has been brought back to a kind of life by Davidson, along with the 19 Moffat County women pictured.

“Mrs. Starr hosted it,” Davidson said, speaking from the office of the museum in downton Craig. “I could see their house from where I’m at here.”

The porch the women are sitting on belonged to a house on the east side of Yampa Avenue just north of what is now the Center of Craig. How do we know?

“You can match the windows,” Davidson said.

The Starrs, Davidson said, had homesteaded in Elkhead at the county line.

“What I was able to do is say oh that’s so and so,” Davidson said. “I found the house, found the names, and it was a party. It’s the same year, just later in the year that Craig was incorporated.

Some of this was the coagulation of decades of research and institutional knowledge. The rest came from historical newspapers. In one such record, Davidson found evidence of something called a “Grandmother’s Tea Party.” It was the photograph he’d been researching.

The women, the article explained, all had to be grandmothers themselves — Davidson mentioned one woman’s sister, who lived in town but had no children, was left out — and here’s the twist: They were dressed like their own grandmothers.

That’s why the outfits were so strange.

“You had to be (a grandmother) to act like one,” Davidson said. “(The story) said old-fashioned games were featured. These ladies got together all the time.”

The photo is part of a critical museum collection from Craig’s most prolific pre-incorporation photographer, George Welch.

“He grew up in Meeker, but showed up in town right after 1900,” Davidson said. “By this time, he’d been taking photography. He was a barber in Craig but was taking photographs. By ’15 he was more commercial, and he was taking pictures into the ’40s. I remember him as an old man when I was a kid.”

But Davidson wasn’t content taking the old newspaper article and moving along. While the story gave the names of most of the women in the picture — and perhaps some that weren’t pictured — as was the style of the time, the women were all called simply “Mrs.”

The women were left in the historical record with only their husbands’ surnames and an honorific at the front. Davidson wanted more.

“The thing nobody did in those years — it didn’t give their first names,” Davidson said. “Their given names wouldn’t have been used. But the census came out a year or two after this. Their first names come from the census.”

The women, he additionally learned in so doing, were from everywhere.

“None of them were from here. There wasn’t a Craig when they were born,” Davidson said. “Mrs. Diamond’s from Scotland. But they all lived right within the Craig area. Craig started in 1889, but for 20 years was an unincorporated town. They had a vote the year this was taken.”

Davidson couldn’t identify every single woman by face, but he could give them all a name.

“It’s how people know you,” Davidson said. “In this group, they’d be called by their first names. Friends called them by their names. But in the newspaper, in a formal sense, they were known by husbands’ names. I think it’s important to know what your name is. In a formal sense, these ladies weren’t known. I don’t think that’s right.”

That year was also notable — it was after Colorado gave women the right to vote.

“These women could have voted for incorporation,” Davidson said. “Some of these women’s grandmothers were born late in the 1700s. Oldest was 80. No modern conveniences. A couple could have had phones by then. Phones got to Craig in 1900, a few could have used phones, But none of them likely rode in an automobile.”

Seventy-nine people voted for the town’s incorporation, Davidson said. Forty were against. Some of these women could have been among those votes.

As Craig was built, these women and their families were the engines behind it.

“This lady and her husband built the first house in Craig,” Davidson said. “This one’s a Morgan the Morgan Trading Post family. Her brother-in-law, Rose Street is named after him.”

Multiple streets, in fact — Ledford, Finley, Tucker, Green among them — are named after these women’s families.

“Each one of these ladies had a central part,” Davidson said. “A lot were homesteaders. Every one, though they’re not known by the average person, they all played an important part in the settlement of Craig.”

These, in effect, were the mothers and grandmothers of Craig.

They were characters, too.

“She always looks like a grump,” Davidson said, explaining how he identified one of the women. “With history, at one time, everybody knew it. But it’s lost.”

Grandmother’s Tea Party guest list

Compiled by Dan Davidson, not every woman listed was pictured. But the presumption is all attended the party.

Margarete Lucas; Creznia Haubrich; Alice Daniels; Hanna Wooley; Laura Finley; Anna Coulter; Mary Diamond; Mary Ratcliff; Mary Weyand; Francis Ledford; Mary Downs; Mary Kittell; Ellen Starr; Mary Crowell; Alvire Cartner; Katherine Fitzpatrick; Emily Jameson; Milcah Clausen; Ellen Givens; Levina White; Flora Tucker; Mary Humphrey; Sarah Green.

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