Alexander & Nellie (Walker) Woods

Alexander and Nellie Woods represent a forgotten family, leaving little legacy behind. Their daughter, Helen (Woods) Baker, alive until 1976, never talked about her parents. However, if you expected a colorless tale, you would be wrong. It turns out that Alexander and Nellie lived a endlessly interesting life. Alexander served admirably in the Civil War, educated himself to be a pharmacist, and became an entrepreneur in the fledgling oil sector. Alexander and Nellie lived in towns that boomed, then busted, with the county’s industrial expansion. It was never easy, but it is never boring. With the help of many surviving historical accounts, the story of Alexander and Mary Ellen Woods can be finally be reconstructed and revealed.

Alexander Woods was born 18 Dec 1845 in rural Mercer county, PA to John W Woods and Jemima McLaughlin. John’s parents had immigrated to Pennsylvania from Tyrone county, North Ireland around 1797 in the early days of Mercer county’s settlement. Jemima McLaughlin’s family, a mixture of immigrates from Londonderry, North Ireland and Germany (place unknown), also settled early in the county. The family farmed near the Ohio border in the township of West Salem. The original homestead can be pinpointed through the use of old maps. Today, no physical reminders survive except for the name of “Woods Road” that passes the location of the old farm. The historical narrative, “A Twentieth Century History of Mercer County, Pennsylvania” by John G. White, 1909, specifically describes our Woods family:

“John W. was born on the old homestead in 1804, and grew to manhood under the parental roof. He was married January 6, 1835, to Jemima, daughter of Patrick McLaughlin, a native of Ireland, whose parents settled in this township in April, 1800. Mrs. Woods was born in Kinsman, Ohio, May 15, 1815, but came to West Salem in infancy. She is the mother of thirteen children: Laird, Electa J., deceased; Wilson, deceased; Elizabeth, deceased; John W., Alexander, Simeon, deceased; Oscar, deceased; Lyman B., Emeline, Willis O., Charles S. and Hattie. Mr Woods always followed farming, and died on the homestead March 17, 1869. He was a deacon of West Salem Baptist Church many years, and his widow has been life-long member of the same organization. He was a Republican in politics, and an upright, honest and liberal-hearted citizen, whom everyone respected. He was a kind father and husband, and his memory is revered by numerous descendants.”

As noted, Alexander had a large number of brothers and sisters. Laird Woods became a doctor, and moved the family to Oregon; Elizabeth (Woods) Millhiser died young in Iowa after the birth of her first child; John W Woods (known as Wellington) remained in West Salem where descendants can be found even today; The gravestones of Oscar and Simeon can be found in Baptist Cemetery near their father’s gravestone. Lyman suffered from a mental disability, and he resided much of this later life at Polk State Institution for the Feeble-minded; Emeline (Woods) Weir moved with her family to Washington state; Willis Orlando Woods remained a farmer in West Salem taking over the family farm before dying in 1897; Charles Sherman Woods moved his family to Iowa where he was a butter maker; Harriett Woods disappeared after the 1880 census.

The Civil War Years
Alexander enlisted toward the end of the Civil War on 8 Sept 1864 with his brother Wellington in Meadville PA with the 199th infantry under Colonel James C Briscoe. They spent about six months in preparation for battle by digging trenches to fortify encampments near Richmond VA, surviving the winter there in good physical shape. Their combat time occurred during a short span from March 28 to April 9, 1865 during the Appomattox campaign march. The battle at Fort Gregg on April 2, the “Alamo of the Confederate”, stands out. The 199th, under Colonel Thomas O Osborn who commanded the 1st brigade of the 24th army corp, lead a front line charge of 5000 against 300 determined, well fortified confederate soldiers prepared to sacrifice themselves to allow the escape of General Robert E Lee’s remaining army.  Brisco specifically mentioned Company F in his report of the action:

“It was now about 9 a.m., and, under directions from Colonel T. O. Osborn, I formed line of battle facing north, my right resting on the line of works carried by the Sixth Corps, the Sixty-seventh Ohio Volunteers on my left and the Sixty-second Ohio deployed as skirmishers in front. The line advanced rapidly, the enemy retiring to the shelter of his strong works, and leaving behind in their haste two 12-pounder Napoleon guns and about twenty-five prisoners. Having advanced about a half a mile the command halted, by order of Colonel Osborn, until the rest of the division could get in position. About this time Lieutenant-Colonel West, Sixty-second Ohio, sent back word he was getting out of ammunition, and requested me to strengthen his right. I sent forward Company F, under Captain I. E. Myers, for that purpose, and shortly afterward, by Colonel Osborn’s direction, sent Captain W. C. Craven’s company (E) to the same point to dislodge some of the enemy’s sharpshooters, who were becoming very troublesome. Our line now rested at a point about 800 yards distant from Fort Gregg, a very difficult swamp between us and the fort, and the whole intervening space swept by the enemy’s musketry and artillery fire. About noon we received orders to attack and carry the fort, and the whole line advanced, in good style. The ground in front of the southeast salient of the work forms a perfect natural glaces for about 300 yards; passing over this space my regiment suffered its severest loss-canister, shot, and minie bullets tore through the ranks, yet not a man faltered. I was struck down by a flanking ball about seventy-five yards from the work, and although I lost but a moment in recovering myself, the men were already in the moat and clambering up the exterior slope; were fighting hand to hand across the parapet, the enemy refusing to surrender, though surrounded on all sides. This sort of thing lasted nearly twenty minutes, when we finally burst over the parapet and the fort was ours.”

The battle left horrible carnage. Capt. Michael Egan of the 12th West Virginia Infantry lamented that  “.. I can compare the appearance of Fort Gregg to nothing but a slaughter pen.  The blue and the gray were there promiscuously heaped together.  Their kindred blood commingling presented a sight not could not fail to impress one indelibly with the horrors of a civil war. ”  Later estimates put the human toil on the unit of 700 men as 18 men killed with 91 wounded. Only 30 of 300 confederates survived. President Lincoln, following this campaign closely, proudly telegraphed his secretary of war: “A portion of Foster’s Division, Twenty-fourth Corps, made a most gallant charge this afternoon, and captured a very important fort from the enemy, with its entire garrison.”  

The 199th continued its pursuit of Robert E Lee with loss and injury to a handful of men at Rice’s Station and Appomattox Court house, culminating in the surrender of Lee on April 9. Alexander would later receive a civil war pension based on this service. His pension file survives to provide a fascinating glimpse into many aspects of his life. There are evaluations of his heath (various claims of rheumatism, disease of heart, urticaria, pleurisy, ague, nervousness), debate about his actual date of birth (it affected his pay), and a chronicles of his frequent moves from town to town.

The Walker Family of Clarksburg, PA
After the war, Alexander can be found in the 1870 census back on the farm helping his recently widowed mother. In 1873 he would marry Mary Ellen, better known as “Nellie”, daughter of James Harvey Walker and Martha McDowell of Clarksville. Her father followed the trade of cabinet making. The 1860 map shows a nice view of the town, and even indicates where the Walker family lived. Charksville prospered until mid 1800’s with the Erie Canal. These good times came to screeching halt with the opening of the railway a mile west of town in 1871. People drifted away, including Nellie’s widowed mother who eventually resettled to the south in Wheatland. Clarksville would exist until 1963 when water of the Shenango river from a new dam submerged most of the town under water. The remaining part of the village became known as Clark.  A biography of Walker family, based on Nellie’s brother, James, in “Genealogical and personal history of Beaver County, Pennsylvania” by John W Jordan, 1914, paints of a nice picture of the Walker line.

“James Leander Walker, a prominent citizen of New Brighton, Pennsylvania, is descended on his father’s side of the house from an old Pennsylvania family, while his mother was a native of Ireland. He was born in 1848, at Clarksville, Mercer county, Pennsylvania, a son of Harvey and Martha (McDowell) Walker. His paternal grandparents were George and Sarah Walker, both probably natives of Mercer county, though of Irish descent. George Walker was a cabinetmaker, and died in Clarksville when our subject was about five years of age. Harvey Walker, the father of our subject, was the eldest of his four children, and was born in Mercer county and educated in the early schools of the region. His education completed, he apprenticed himself to his father and of him learned the trade of cabinet making, which he afterwards followed through life at Clarksville. He was a strongly religious man and an active member of the Methodist Episcopal church, and of the Sons of Temperance, and an extremely ardent partisan of the cause for which that organization stood. He was married to Martha McDowell, a daughter of parents who were immigrants to the United States and settled in the southern part of New York state. Miss McDowell herself came to this country when only three years of age, with an aunt. To Mr. and Mrs. Walker were born six children : Julia ; Kathrine ; James Leander, our subject; Mary Ellen; William G. and Francis H. Walker.”

Nellie could easily have had a hard childhood. Harvey died of consumption when Nellie was around eight years old. She first appears in the 1860 census with her recently widowed mother and her siblings ranging in age from 1 to 16 years. By 1870 the family is completely broken up with Martha living with her widowed brother, William, a successful owner of a Carriage making shop. The rest of the children, except Julia, cannot be located in the census.

The brothers and sisters of Nellie Walker all eventually moved away from Mercer county. Julia (Walker) Carnes moved to Trumbull county, Ohio having a large family as a farmer’s wife; James, William and Frank all moved to New Brighton, Beaver county, PA with James a mechanical engineer, William a building contractor and Frank in the grocery business.  All three had small families, but a few “Walkers” likely survive through Frank, who ultimately moved to Glendale CA. Catherine Elizabeth Walker remains a mystery. Nellie apparently remained close with a sister when she and Helen visited her dying mother/grandmother in New Brighton, and Helen spent time with a Pennsylvania aunt in the summer of 1900. Both references are likely to this Catherine Elizabeth Walker. Unfortunately, her trail disappears after the 1860 census.

The marriage of Alexander Woods and Nellie Walker took place at Martha Walker’s home in Wheatland, a new town being developed in Hickory township of Mercer county. It is here that Alexander first surfaces as a pharmacist. A fun article in“The Greenville Shenango Valley Argus” in September 1874 gives a good sense of the era:

“The mule race at Wheatland, Saturday was probably the most “amusing” amusement ever held in the county. A base ball match between the Curtis Hill Club and a picked nine also took place on the grounds at the same time, which was won by the Curtis Hill boys. With flying balls, kicking mules, and clouds of dust, the locality was not a save one, so we shifted our position to the sidewalk in front of Wood’s drug store – where we found Alec, dispensing his sparkling soda water to the thirsty crowd – and concluded to view the scene from a distance, leaving our correspondent to forward the result of the day’s doings. The judges’ stand, an improvised affair, gave way shortly after the races commenced, doubtless owing to the weight of the ponderous bell which hung upon it. (It was a cowbell.) We have not the space to spare to note the many laughable incidents which occurred, but suffice it to say that every body felt that they had spent a festive afternoon.”

Turkey City, Pennsylvania
Now comes the move to Turkey City, Clarion County, PA, an oil town formed around this time. The original discovery of oil in Titusville PA in 1859 brought throngs of people to northwestern Pennsylvania to erect wells. Specifically, Turkey Run represented a typical boom town as described by Neil and Lois McElwee of the Oil Region Alliance in their 150 year anniversary essay:

“The hills on the sides of Turkey Run proved inviting to drillers in 1872. Turkey City sat on the road to St. Petersburg and offered four stage coach runs a day, a post office with daily mail service and two acceptable hotels. It early on became the focus of oil field activity up on the plateau above the Clarion River. Several pipelines originated or connected with others at the place leading to Oil City or Bear Creek Station. (Refer to Armstrong County.) A large storage tank farm was built in the nearby fields. This was the center of Clarion County pipeline operations for Standard Oil’s American Transfer Co., a pipeline that merged with Standard Oil’s United Pipe Lines Inc. in 1877. These lines became the property of the National Transit Co. in 1881. Today, nearly everything is gone but the Turkey City Post Office and the inactive pipeline right-of-ways leading to and from the place.”

Little remains to memorialize Turkey City today except for one very impressive map of Clarion county created in 1877 around when Alexander would have resided there. It shows no less than four drug stores among the various shops giving Alexander some competition. The town itself also faced challenges from other locations. As better oil opportunities unfolded, people would quickly move out of the area. A substantial fire in 1879 wiped out a majority of the downtown business, although Alexander Woods’ name was not mentioned in the list of those affected. Today, the town  consists of a single small post office that will postmark letters from “Turkey Run” for Thanksgiving.

The surviving documents make the exact timing of the Woods’ movement between Wheatland and Turkey City difficult to pinpoint. In his civil war pension file, Alexander states that he lived in Wheatland for 8 years, in Turkey City for 5 years and in Richburg for 10-12 yrs. Ralph’s 1937 obituary states he was born in 1876 in Wheatland. There is a 1874 Greenville newspaper article describing sale of his drug store in Wheatland; a 1879 newspaper article about the death of son Freddie in Turkey City, another 1889 newspaper article that states that Alexander moved to Richburg from Wheatland in 1884. There are two entries for Alexander & Nellie Woods in the 1880 census, one in Clarion Co PA and one in Wheatland. Best guess here is that they divided their time between Turkey City and Wheatland, living in Turkey City between 1874-1879. Nellie could have remained in Wheatland with her mother while Alexander earned a living in Turkey City.

Richburg, New York
Next stop for the family in 1884 was Richburg, Alleghany County, New York which had recently completed a two year stint as a wild boom town from 1881-1882. We benefit from many surviving newspaper accounts that discuss the family’s movement. The bustling town included a fine opera house and a railway line. The population surged to 8000, with its associated crime and prostitution. A newspaper article in the “Rochester Democrat & Chronicle” on 8 April 1897 describes the situation:

“No boom lasts long. In May, 1882, the news of the big gushers down in Pennsylvania, caused a great slump in the oil market, and Richburg’s floating population flocked to the new and more promising field. There is nothing more fickle than the floating population of a boom town in the oil country. This was the beginning of the end of Richburg’s greatness. Bolivar, a hamlet a mile down the valley, began to boom in the spring of 1882, and soon the Standard Oil Company moved its buying office to Bolivar, and Richburg began to go to seed. Fires wiped out some of the finest buildings, and others were torn down and moved to adjacent villages. Buildings that cost thousands of dollars went for a mere song. The fine opera house was converted into a cheese factory. The railroads were long ago torn up and a stage line again connects Richburg with the outside world. The 300 people who live there today are very loyal to the deserted city and to the village charter. Even the oldest resident dates everything from the oil excitement. He does not remember much what happened before that because there was little to remember.”

So the Woods family moved here at the start of the decline of the town. He had dreams of wealth through oil speculation in addition to his day job as a drug store operator. He held posts as a supervisor of Wirt township, telegraph operator and notary public. Alexander joined the Grand Army Republic (GAR) in 1885. In the beginning his strategy in oil lease investments paid off,  cumulating in the formation of the Woods Oil and Gas Company around 1894. One 1895 Newspaper article describes him as “one of Allegany county’s ‘solid’ oil producers”. In 1896 he sold his interest in the company.

Around this time, luck of Alexander and Nellie turned south. In 1897 Nellie died. Her simple obituary can be found in “The Boliver Breeze” on 12 Feb 1897:

“Mrs. A.A. Woods died at her home in Richburg, Monday morning, after an illness of three months, aged 45 years. The deceased leaves a husband and two children to mourn their irreparable loss. Mr. Woods has resided in Richburg for nearly 12 years; the family are highly respected and have the sympathy of the entire community.”

Richburg was actively dying as well as described in 1897: “There are large business blocks with windows boarded up, long rows of vacant buildings that are tumbling from shaky foundations, a great brick church slowly crumbling, a brick bank building that cost several thousand dollars now used as a dwelling house, streets that are as silent as a churchyard, and over the whole hangs an air desolation and decay.” In 1899 Alexander exited the drug store business, becoming employed by A.D. Work of Jamestown as a traveling candy salesman. In 1900 he could not work due to health issues with Bright’s disease. Later in 1900 a ominous newspaper line states “A.A. Woods’ well on the Skinner farm, Wirt Center, is a dry hole.” By Aug 1901 he declared a bankrupcy. It would be one of the last mentions of any oil activity. Sometime in 1901 he moved to Angelica, Allegany, NY. He would return to pharmacy, and increasingly rely on his civil war pension for income.

Alexander and Nellie provided an solid education for their children, at least though 1901. After completing the local Richmond school, Ralph (1896-1899) and Helen (1898-1901) attended the State Normal School in Geneceo, Livingston county, NY. Ralph then studied law at a Rochester law firm, later serving as secretary to Rochester mayor Culter. Eventually he drifted away from law, moving to Tennessee and Ohio where he married Maud Tennett. Helen began teaching in Lake George NY in 1902, then attended Cornell University for a year in 1905 before teaching again in Medina NY in 1906. Here she she met Harold J Baker. Helen followed Harold to Wellston OK where he had opened an office for his fledgling career. All the children eventually settled in Tulsa OK, with Ralph an oil trader and Helen married to a dentist.

With his children on their own, Alexander became a nomad in the pharmacy business. Newspaper snippets chronicle the W.S. Thomas drug store of Angelica NY from 1901-1905, the Perhamus drug store in Caledonia in 1906-1907, the Wilcox pharmacy of Le Roy NY in 1907, the H.B. Drown Pharmacy of Ellicottville NY in 1908, the Rogers Pharmacy in Attica NY in 1910, Redmond’s Pharmacy in Fillmore NY in 1912. Finally in 1913, at the age of 69, he appears to retire, joining Ralph and Maud in Kansas, then Helen and Harold in Tulsa.  But retirement did not last. In March 1916 he resumed work at the Densmore Pharmacy in Springwater NY. He died at work a few months later doing the job he knew best:

“The news of death of Alexander A. Woods which occurred in Springwater last Friday evening. May 26, 1916, came as a great surprise to Caledonia people as it was not known but that he was enjoying the best of health. Mr. Woods was a man who made friends wherever he went and consequently everyone who know him feel that they have lost a valued friend. He was born in Greenville, Pa., 72 years ago, and most of his early years was spent in the oil fields of Pennsylvania. He served one year in the war and was with General Grant at Appomatox, and was a member of the G.A.R. During later years he held positions as druggist in Caledonia, Attica, Le Roy, Fillmore, Buffalo and lastly Springwater. Deceased leaves one daughter, Mrs. Harold J. Baker, and one son, Ralph A. Woods, both of Tulsa, Oklahoma; also four grandchildren. His wife, whose maiden name was Nellie Walker, died eighteen years ago. He also leaves a brother of Greenville and a number of nieces and nephews. The remains were taken to Greenville and buried in the family lot. Mrs. R.A. Woods went to Greenville to attend the funeral. Funeral services were held Tuesday afternoon. Members of the G.A.R Post of Greenville and the 199th Pennsylvania regiment in which Mr. Woods, enlisted attended the funeral.”

With the childhood farmhouse reclaimed by the earth, Wheatfield torn apart by wind, Clarksville immersed by water and Turkey City incinerated by fire, few clues remain of the adventure forged by the Woods’ family. The graves of Alexander and Nellie, along with their small children and her mother, can be found at Shenango cemetery, near Greenville, back in Mercer County PA. The modest stones offer the last few tangible clues to the adventure forged by this family.