Musicians in the family: an afterword

ABA with All Blue 1920
My grandmother in 1920

In thinking about the Ilsley family of singers and musicians to which my great-grandmother Theodora Ilsley Ayer belonged, I could think of no special evidence of the family talent having lasted into the twentieth century. Yet to pose the question is to invite the answer, and in fact I have a letter – preserved in my paternal grandmother’s scrapbook – hinting at musical skills which Mrs. Ayer hoped to foster.

In November 1925, my grandmother (Anne Beekman Ayer) was at school in Virginia. From the letter written by Margaret Liddell Torrens on 9 November, it would appear that Anne visited the Torrenses in New York, perhaps en route to or from Boston, where the Ayers lived. Both Mr. and Mrs. L. A. Torrens were voice teachers, but it was Mr. Torrens who heard Anne sing – and perhaps play the piano as well – while it was Mrs. Torrens who wrote Theodora Ayer communicating her husband’s verdict. (Click on the images to expand them.)

Torrens 2Torrens 3

It would seem that, unlike some of the nineteenth-century Ilsleys, Anne’s talents as a singer and pianist fell well within the normal range. The Torrenses noted, politely, that she was very young still, and that she should continue working on her piano and languages and “cautiously with her voice.” (Interestingly enough, my grandmother’s first cousin Anne Proctor Ayer became a well-known mezzo-soprano singer – but she was a cousin on the Ayer rather than the Ilsley side.) My grandmother later studied in Paris, and perhaps this had to do with further musical training, but in any case she married my grandfather in November 1927, at the age of nineteen, and devoted her energies to raising her sons and running a farm in Massachusetts.

I should close by saying that my sisters are both talented singers and musicians. Perhaps this is the latest manifestation of the Ilsley musical skills (on our father’s side) and those of the Boucher family (on our mother’s side) – it’s a nice thought!

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

9 thoughts on “Musicians in the family: an afterword

  1. Scott, are there any historic Boston music publications I might use to find my missing gggrandmother, Florence Caroline Whitmore Sherwood? She was a harp soloist, teacher, and family history has it that she was touring Europe with Paderewski when her 2nd husband, bankrupt owner of Hall Carriage Company, Boston, committed suicide. We have a newspaper clipping about this, but no date or which Boston paper it is from. On a visit years ago I tried to find out if she had ever appeared at Fenway Court. Oddly enough, one of her business cards is in a collection at Harvard. Sadly, none of her descendants got any of her talent…

      1. Bravo! Those 2 articles are about the same as what I have, but having a date might help me find his burial site and then hers… now to find her son Frederick Whitmore Sherwood, who at the same address on Washington St. was listed as Custom Shirt Maker, and a Doctor! Say what? Florence had rather a sad life. Divorced her 1st husband, an alcoholic, she lost 2 small children to an epidemic (Woodstock, Ill.) sent Fred to study in Germany while she studied music (during the Civil War?) both moved to Boston, she married Mr. Hall, Fred’s wife and children moved back here to Chicago at one point, without him. He died, or she divorced him…? And there might have been a murder in the Whitmore family…Florence’s ex married her cousin… I think. Wish I could return to Boston sometime soon! Visited NEHGS @ 20 years ago. Thanks for your help!

          1. Scott, I’ve really enjoyed Vita Brevis and all the NEHGS postings, and the connections made from them. Many thanks to you all. Happy hunting. Susan

  2. I have been reading your Ilsley saga with interest. I also come from a family with musical leanings, on both sides, one professionally classical, the other locally sought-after traditional music. While my brothers and I love music, none of us can really claim much talent, though we try. I also have a curiousity about the name Ilsley, not a common name. By any chance, did one of your cousins end up in Vermont? Though the Middlebury Library Association was founded in the 19th century, in 1919, a Colonel Silas A. Ilsley left a dedicated bequest for construction of a building. Mrs. Ilsley later matched the bequest with a gift. The new building was finished in 1924 and named the Ilsley Public Library. Though small, it is a fine library.

    1. Dear Annie: I’m sure we are related to Silas, but probably not very closely. On the other hand, my great-great-great-aunt Sarah Ilsley Tuttle lived in Burlington, I think, before the turn of the twentieth century. All my best, and thanks, Scott

  3. The following is a section from my forthcoming book FROM SLATE TO MARBLE: GRAVESTONE CARVING TRADITIONS IN EASTERN MASSACHUSETTS, 1750–1850; Volume II. I believe that your ancestor Francis L. Ilsley was a stonecutter in Portland in the early 1820s. If you think otherwise, or can add anything to his earlier life, I’d love to hear from you. Here is my short account:
    Taking Over from Bartlett Adams

    In the 1827 Portland Directory, there is an entry for Bartlett Adams, stonecutter, and also one that reads: “Ilsley, Francis, stone cutter, at B. Adam’s, federal.” In 1827, Ilsley was twenty-three years old and had completed his apprenticeship. He may have assumed the principal responsibility of carving gravestones in the Adams shop.
    In the June 6, 1828 issue of Portland’s Eastern Argus – not quite five months after Adams’ death – Francis Ilsley placed an advertisement (Fig. IV.55) for his stonecutting shop with his partner Joseph R. Thompson. The description of the location is the same as that contained in Adams’ earlier ads. Curiously, however, this ad ran only for ten weeks, through August.
    The 1831 Portland Directoty has “Francis L. Ilsley and Joseph R. Thompson, stonecutters, Federal St.” In the July 10, 1832 issue of the Eastern Argus, we find another advertisement (Fig. IV.56), with “Marble Chimney Pieces” featured more prominently than gravestones. Ilsley and Thompson also note their need for an apprentice. This ad ran only for a year, through August of 1833.
    It appears that Ilsley’s production slacks off after 1827 (yet I emphasize that I did not attempt a comprehensive canvas of their stones); that is, Ilsley and Thompson’s business venture here hardly seems successful, and from Ilsley’s perspective at least, perhaps half-hearted as well, for in the October 5, 1827 issue of the Eastern Argus, we also find an advertisement (Fig. IV.57FD) for a “Singing School” to be opened by Ilsley. This ran for about eight months, and was followed five years later by a longer ad that ran for a month from September 27, 1833 (Fig. IV.58FD). The 1834 Portland Directory has Francis as a “teacher of vocal music.” It’s possible that in the time between these two sets of ads, that is, between 1828 and 1832, Ilsley was otherwise employed, for he may have been the Francis Ilsley who arrived from St. Jago [Santiago], Cuba to Philadelphia in June of 1829 according to passport records (the age is right, at least).
    Ilsley’s first singing school ad was placed two months before Bartlett Adams died. Ilsley was in all probability more serious about vocal music than about stonecutting and ultimately was able to pursue his first love more seriously. But to relate this part of his story, it is necessary to describe some of the activities of his remarkable family.

    The Musical Ilsleys

    Francis Lunt Ilsley was born in Portland on September 13, 1804 to Nathaniel Ilsley and Elizabeth Lunt, who were married in December of 1803. But Elizabeth apparently died (of childbirth, perhaps) the same day Francis was born, and Nathaniel remarried, to her sister Judith Lunt, in 1807. They would have eight more children, six of whom would live past childhood. Francis Ilsley married Lucy Wildes Coes in Portland in June of 1830. They would have at least five children.
    Edwards (1928) tells us that Francis Ilsley and his six half-siblings (who were also his first cousins on his mother’s side) all became professional singers of sacred music (p. 77, 182). Second in order of birth was Ferdinand Ingersoll Ilsley, born in 1808. He and Francis had a life-long close association. In 1835, Ferdinand opened The Portland Academy of Music, acquiring 300 pupils by the next year (p. 181). In 1837, The Sacred Music Society, an outgrowth of the Academy, offered Haydn’s Creation, with Francis’ siblings Arthur and Esther as principal vocalists. The same year the Society offered the oratorio David, with Francis Ilsley in the title role.
    Both Francis and Ferdinand moved to the Albany, NY area shortly after 1837, perhaps together. In 1840, Ferdinand, who was also a violinist and owned a piano store, conducted Haydn’s Creation in Albany. The 1840 US Census has Francis as a resident of Troy, NY (just outside Albany).
    Francis was still in Troy in 1843, when he sang for a benefit in Albany, but he must have moved to Newark, NJ by 1847, for that is the year he sang at the centenary commencement of the College of New Jersey. In 1851 he became conductor of a newly formed choral society in Newark.
    Ferdinand remained in Albany through perhaps 1855, when he sold his piano store and moved to New Jersey. In 1855 and 1856, he taught at Trenton Academy. In 1859 Francis was listed in a county directory as a “teacher of vocal music in Grammar School 1 and 8” in Newark.
    Francis Ilsley died in Newark on April 4, 1874 at the age of sixty. He was buried in Fairmount (or Mt. Pleasant) cemetery.
    In the 1880 US Census, Ferdinand was still in Newark and listed as a music teacher, as were (at separate addresses) two of Francis’ children – his son Francis G. Ilsley and his daughter Harriet (Hattie).
    By 1887, Francis L. Ilsley’s son Francis G. Ilsley, was listed as a “professor of music.”
    Francis Ilsley’s early partner in stonecutting, Joseph R. Thompson, followed a more conventional path.
    Joseph Robinson Thompson was born in Hartford, ME on November 21, 1804, the son of Cyrus Thompson and Rebecca Robinson. He was two months younger than Francis Ilsley. He married Martha Caroline Rogers in 1830, and they had thirteen children between 1831 and 1855, all born in Portland.
    I found no advertisements for his stonecutting shop until 1846 – about nine years after Francis Ilsley left for Troy, NY. Thompson’s shop was listed in the Portland Reference Book for that year (Fig. 9.x), located at Federal and Pearl, presumably the same shop Ilsley had taken over from Bartlett Adams. In the same directory are two other stonecutters working for him: William Evans, “marble worker” and Pierce Goss, “stonecutter,” both boarding at 121 Exchange. Thompson was still at Federal and Pearl in an 1856 directory.
    Thompson was listed as a stonecutter or a marble worker in Portland in the 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880 US Censuses. In 1850, his son Henry F. Thompson, aged 18, was listed as an apprentice; in 1860, his son Enoch M., aged 17, was listed as a marble worker; in 1870 and 1880, his sons Enoch M., and Sumner C., were both listed as marble workers.
    In the1860 Census, Joseph’s real and personal property were assessed as $3000 and $3000 each, but a fire in Portland in 1866 must have taken much of his property, for his loss at the time was valued at $12,000 and his assessed worth in the 1870 Census was $2000 and $1000 for real and personal property. Yet the assessed value for the personal property of his son Enoch (aged 26) in the same Census was $3500.
    Joseph R. Thompson died in Portland on November 21, 1883. I did not investigate his business further and have not identified any gravestones that might have been cut by his (or any his son’s) hand.

    1. Jim, this is great — many thanks! I think that Francis and his half-brothers all initially worked in building trades (Arthur remained a carpenter), but, as you say, the whole family seems to have been more focused on music — and in the case of Francis and Elizabeth, at least, seem to have made a living from it!

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