A brief overview of the lives and times of the Pringle and Simmons families
On Wednesday 15 September 1886, a wedding took place at St. Luke's
Episcopal Church in Hastings, Minnesota. The groom was Frank Anthony
Simmons, a young farmer who lived just south of town with his father,
step-mother, and a brood of younger siblings. The bride was Ellen
Morgan Pringle, a pretty young woman who was a month shy of her twenty-third birthday.
Nellie, as she was frequently called by friends and family, was born in Batavia, New York, in 1863. Not long after her birth, her father, an enterprising young lawyer named George Paul Pringle, moved his family west to La Crosse, Wisconsin. A year later, in 1864, he made a second and final move to Hastings. Like many other young men in the mid-nineteenth century, he dreamed of becoming a prosperous lawyer, and the burgeoning five-year-old state of Minnesota was the ideal location to pursue such a career. His father, Judge Benjamin Pringle, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1853 to 1857 and was certainly qualified to make such judgments, declared in 1855 that "unless I am entirely mistaken in my appreciation of your talents, you have capacity sufficient to become a distinguished and eminent lawyer and that you have industry, enterprise, and perseverance enough to accomplish it should you undertake."
On 1 February 1874 George Paul Pringle died of tuberculosis, putting to rest any dreams that his family or friends may have had for him. His fate was a common one: many promising young men of the era died tragically early deaths. Three years later, in 1877, his widow married a civic-minded judge named John Ramsey Clagett. Whether it was a marriage of love or economic necessity is unknown.
Frank had experienced similar loss in childhood. His mother Florence, like Nellie’s father, was tubercular. In February of 1875, she was sent to the warmer climate of Florida to recuperate, but it seems that she either didn't want to or was unable to travel any further than Terra Haute, Indiana; she passed away there that April. After she died, her body was sent back north, arriving by a midnight train and met by the mourning family at the local depot. She left a teenage Frank and his father Lucius Curtis with six young children to care for. The responsibility must have been a daunting one, but the two men rose to it. Frank took a job as a lumberman during the winter and continued to help his father in the fields during the summer, while Curtis hired Florence's cousin, Lucy Delano, to tutor his children. Lucy's commanding sister Martha (whom everyone addressed as "Cousin Mat") also joined the household to serve as a surrogate mother and housekeeper, a capacity that she would fill for years to come. In 1882, Curtis married Lucy in an elegant ceremony in Terra Haute.
After their honeymoon in Minneapolis, Frank and Nellie moved to a farmhouse on Curtis's acreage. They named their farm "Cloverly" and worked there for nearly forty years. Together they had seven children.
Their first baby, a gray-eyed boy named Francis, was born in July of 1887. According to an obituary in the Hastings Gazette printed soon after his death, he rose early every morning without being called to help Frank with chores. But weeks after his seventeenth birthday, he fell prey to the same illness that had killed his grandparents. He died of tuberculosis in September of 1904.
second child, George, was born in 1889. He held a variety of jobs,
working at the County Engineer's Office for a time before eventually
moving to the Farmington Post Office. He served in the Army during
World War I; the experience seems to have been a haunting one. "I feel
so lonely," he wrote to Nell in 1920. "I would be all right if my mind
& health were o.k. but I have changed so much the last 6 years
& since discharged from the Army. As I have said before it has
been the ruination of me leaving home." His work-related travels took
him all across the country, and in 1923, he married a newspaper
editor's daughter in New Mexico. They had no children. Eventually he
returned to Minnesota with her, where they lived until 1978, when both
died within months of each other.
Florence was the third child. Born in April of 1891, she died the following year.
Frank and Nell's fourth child, Ellen, was born two years after Florence's death. She was a beautiful and intelligent woman who established a fruitful career for herself as a school teacher, administrator, and principal. She traveled, collected fine antiques, kept house for her younger brother for a time, and was, as her obituary noted, "prominently connected with many educational associations and groups." She died in August 1956 of cancer, shortly after her retirement.
Lucia was born next, arriving on her mother's third-second birthday in 1895. Like her sister Ellen, she wanted to become a teacher. However, while pursuing a degree at the Winona Normal School, she too developed tuberculosis. Despite three years of treatment at Walker and Mineral Springs Sanitariums, she died at dawn on Whit Sunday, 1921. She was twenty-five.
Mary was 1897's child. Bold, bright, and articulate, she left the farm for the big city of Minneapolis while still a teenager. She became an RN during World War I and worked at a prestigious luxury facility named Eitel Hospital, adjacent to Loring Park. After her marriage, she and her husband William Howard Gray had two daughters named Jane and Carol. Sometime around 1935, she received a scholarship in public health nursing from the University of Michigan. She left her daughters in the hands of her husband and went back to college. Such a move was practically unheard of during this time, but it paid dividends: after returning from school, she worked for the Iron Mountain, Michigan, county health department for thirty-five years. In 1968 she was named the "woman of the year" in her Michigan county. She died after a short illness in 1987.
Frank and Nell apparently resolved against having more children after Mary, for family and friends alike expressed surprise when Carroll Bradford Simmons, the couple's seventh and final child, was born 23 July 1903.
Carroll Bradford Simmons - named after his great-grandfather, Captain Carroll Jackson Bradford - was a handsome and enigmatic man who was fiercely independent and intelligent. As a teenager, he was fascinated by antiques and history. He took courses in forestry, architecture, and the history of American furniture nights at the University of Minnesota.
After World War I, global demand for food slackened. Farmers all across the country soon began to feel the pinch, and the Simmons family was no exception. They lost the farm in 1924 and moved to a house at 316 W. Fourth Street in Hastings. Not long afterward Carroll started an antique shop in the family home called "The Swan." Contemporary accounts suggest that his father Frank and his sister Ellen were both involved in the venture, as well. In the mid-1920s, Carroll borrowed $2,000 (approximately $25,000 in modern-day money) and headed east, returning with a truck-full of early American furniture. As the legend goes, he sold everything at a profit, paid back the loan, and never had to borrow money from anybody ever again.
Five years later came the disastrous stock market crash of 1929. Thousands upon thousands of enterprises failed in the resulting chaos. An antique shop was particularly vulnerable, especially one run by a young farmer with little previous business experience. It seemed that Carroll had chosen the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yet somehow The Swan stayed afloat. "Simmons is building up a flourishing little business as a dealer in antiques, and incidentally, winning the patronage and confidence of many prominent personages, who have a penchant for articles of great historical or artistic value," the local newspaper reported in November of that year. During the "lean years" of the Depression, he and Ellen grew vegetables to help make ends meet, but the antique business still survived.
In 1930, unexpected death struck the close-knit Simmons family. Exactly one year after Black Tuesday, Nellie died suddenly in Hastings. She was sixty-seven years old. A few years later, Frank married a family acquaintance named Marie Moreland; that second marriage lasted until his death in 1946.
In 1928, a longtime family friend named Mabel Gardner opened up her own antique shop / tearoom in her family home, built during the Civil War by her grandfather, General William Gates LeDuc. Three stories tall with an imposing Gothic exterior, the LeDuc house was widely acknowledged to be the grandest home in Hastings. Mabel consulted with Carroll about various aspects of the business; soon he began to showcase some of his own pieces in her shop; later, he lived there part-time to guard against vandals. Some kind of rental arrangement was eventually agreed upon, and in the 1930s Carroll moved his entire shop to the LeDuc mansion - or "chateau", as he preferred to call it - with only his woodworking space remaining at the house on Fourth Street. The house was notoriously difficult to heat, so he preferred to live in St. Paul throughout the cold Minnesota winters.
Despite the home's architectural and historical significance, its image had begun to tarnish somewhat by the late 1920s. Mabel and her sister Edith simply didn't have the funds necessary to maintain the aging structure. They realized they would have to sell. Unfortunately for them, it was no small feat to sell a Gothic mansion in Hastings, Minnesota, during the Great Depression. Few were interested in the property. The Gardners had begun to despair when Carroll made an offer. In 1941, he bought the house and the surrounding woodland for $10,000 plus 50% of the back-taxes. (For comparison purposes, $10,000 is the modern equivalent of $135,000. It is unknown how much was paid for the back-taxes.) He began making repairs and improvements, and soon he was living in a gorgeous home surrounded by his workshop and display space. His renovation of the LeDuc house set a new standard for the property: one of glamour, sophistication, and wealth. In its new incarnation the house became a tourist destination for curious travelers and prestigious collectors alike.
After World War II, the nation experienced a building boom. Well-placed land, especially in fast-growing suburbs like Hastings, was at a premium. The LeDuc house sat on a chunk of particularly desirable acreage along the city's main thoroughfare, Vermillion Street. Many developers were interested in the LeDuc property, and many contacted Mr. Simmons in attempts to buy. One proposed building a shopping center on the land, and he offered Carroll $100,000 for the house and property (the equivalent of approximately $700,000 today). Unfortunately for the developers, however, they were butting heads with a man who could match them point for point in persistence, stubbornness, and cunning - and who, thankfully, had the financial resources to back up his tenacity. Carroll relished telling the story in later years: "Someone wanted to tear down the mansion and put in a supermarket. But I didn't want to tear it down. Instead, I turned around and gave it to the state historical society."
Carroll was not the only Hastings citizen who wanted to see the LeDuc preserved for posterity. Although the final decision was obviously his own, one of his best friends - a woman named Hazel Jacobsen, the wife of the local hardware store owner - was also instrumental in making the donation a reality. Mrs. Jacobsen was determined to preserve as much local history as possible, and one of her main objectives throughout her years of campaigning was to save the LeDuc Mansion. She devoted herself to raising public awareness of the home's significance through lectures, fund-raising, and tours.
On 25 July 1957, the headline of the Hastings Gazette carried the triumphant headline “Carroll Simmons Offers LeDuc Chateau Property to the State.” The Minnesota Historical Society was stunned: it was the first such outright gift that the Society had ever received. Carroll’s only condition was that he would be able to operate his business there as long as he wanted. The Historical Society bowed to his wishes, and a triumphant dedication ceremony was held the following year.
In May 1959, he married a woman from
Lake Elmo named Margaret Emily Dunlop. The ceremony took place in the
third-story chapel of the LeDuc house. I know relatively little about
Margaret Dunlop, save that she lived in the exclusive Crocus Hill
neighborhood in St. Paul for many years. At one point in the early
twenties, she and her family lived just a few doors down from F. Scott
Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. The marriage was the first for both of
them; Carroll was 56 and Margaret was 67.
Carroll’s professional success continued throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies. He bought a summer home in LeRoy, New York, which was, in the words of one biographer, “his headquarters in the East.” He was a consultant in the decoration of the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion in the late 1960s, as well as the restoration of the Miles Brewton House in Charleston. He spoke to the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts about old river homes in the 1970s. His homes and places of business were showcased in multiple magazines. “I am one of the few collectors in the region of real antiques,” he declared in 1979. "Real antiques" were, he defined, pieces made before 1825.
Sometime before her death in 1956, Ellen had purchased a special property: the white clapboard overlooking the Mississippi that Nellie had grown up in. The house had been a wedding present to George Paul Pringle when he married Nellie’s mother. Upon her death, Ellen left the home to Carroll. In the early sixties, he restored the house at the cost of $23,000: approximately $125,000 in today’s money. His efforts were rewarded when the home was featured in a large article in Antiques magazine five years later. Consequently the restoration was internationally acknowledged. The Pringle-Clagett house, as it was called, soon became Carroll’s full-time home. He lived there with his cats, dogs, and favorite antique pieces, many of which had been passed down through three or more generations of Pringles and Simmonses.
In his later years Carroll's health began to decline. Three years after Margaret’s death, he dissolved the business, and in April of 1992, he died. Carroll had no heirs able to take his massive estate in its entirety, and so the majority of it was disassembled in a series of sales. Bargain-hunters were in line three full days before the events began, even with the stipulation that once you were in line, you had to stay there to keep your place. Dozens of people slept in their cars.
There was an Eau Claire antique dealer at one of the sales who purchased some Simmons family letters - many from Mary, a few from Frank, a couple addressed to Carroll - and put them up for sale in his shop. From there, they passed into my hands; from them, I learned this fascinating tale.
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