Whenever I see an antique portrait of a person either in an antique store or online, I always wonder who they were. With over 900 portraits in Nebraska Memories, there are plenty of them for me to wonder about. In Nebraska Memories, the amount of information that is provided about each person depends on many factors including where the photo came from and what information was written on or attached to the photo. I thought it might be fun to pick a portrait and see if I could learn more about the person. I looked at a few different portraits and decided to research Jessie M. Towne.
The portrait of Miss Jessie M. Towne is part of Omaha Public Library’s collection. The record for Miss Towne provided me with some great information to start my research. She worked at the Omaha Central High School for over 40 years retiring in 1930. She was a teacher, dean of girls and an assistant principal. I also learned that her father was Solon R. Towne. He was a health inspector and ornithologist.
I started my research by searching the US Census in the MyHeritage Library Edition database. (MyHeritage is a genealogy database that is available to all Nebraska residents at no cost through NebraskAccess.) Here is some of the information I found from looking at multiple censuses.
- Jessie was born in July 1874 in New Hampshire.
- Her parents were Dr. Solon R. Towne and Harriet C. Towne.
- Jessie was the oldest of four children.
- She had one younger brother Robert S. Towne.
- She had two sisters Mary A. Towne and Alice C. Towne.
- In the 1940 Census, both Jessie and Mary were single and living together at 1502 North 54 street in Benson, NE.
Next, I searched another one of my favorite sites, the Library Of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers collection. The first article I found was “High School Girls to have a “Foster Mother”.” It appeared in the July 4, 1915 issue of the Omaha Daily Bee and talked about how she was recently appointed D.O.G. D.O.G. stands for Dean of Girls. Miss Towne looks like a series women in both the portrait and the photo that was included in the article. The article, however, describes her as someone who laughs. “Miss Towne does not giggle. But she laughs with her whole person. Her face lights up and her big eyes dance with amusement, merriment and sometimes she rocks to and fro. She laughs with perfect freedom. She laughs with girlish glee.” The article was very amusing to read. I also learned that she had already been teaching at the high school since 1895.
An article that appeared in the June 23, 1915, issue of the Omaha Bee talks about how she was assigned the position of Dean of Students in addition to being the head of the English Literature department. With the addition of the new responsibilities, her salary was increased from $1,400 a year to $2,000 a year.
Another great source of information was the Omaha Central High School Archives that contains digitized copies of the school’s newspaper and yearbooks. Jessie was mentioned many times in both. Here are a few of my favorites.
- The February 1916 issue of The Register contains a picture of her as a small child. The picture and accompanying article can be found on page 14 of the PDF document or page 26 of the newspaper.
- In that same issue of the paper is a small article describing Miss Towne’s presentation to a group of Dundee ladies. According to the article, “She mentioned the new system of having some of the Senior girls wear purple and white ribbons so that the poor, bewildered little Freshmen might know whom to apply when in need of aid.” (Page 10 of the PDF document or page 16 of the newspaper.)
- “Gallant Harrie Sbearer Recuses Fair Maiden”. In the February 10, 1928, issue of The Weekly Register, there was an article describing how a ghost was stalking Miss Towne. In a second article, they tell about how Miss Towne jumped up on a seat to make an announcement and found herself unable to move. While the article implies that it might have been the ghost at work it turns out her shoe got caught in the seat. Her shoe came off when Harrie helped her down.
The Central High School Foundation has a short bio of Jessie on their website. Not only did Jessie teach at the school she also graduated from there in 1892. She took courses at Harvard, Stanford and graduated from the University of Nebraska. At some point in time, she was made vice principal.
When Jessie attended and taught at the High School it had a much more formal feeling than I would expect to find at a school today. The photos in Nebraska Memories provide us with a glimpse of the ornate sculptures and artwork in the corridors and classrooms.
Even though I’ve already learned a lot about Jessie, I decided to do a couple of more searches. I’m happy I did because I found what I think is the most interesting piece of information. In 1913, Jessie presented at the nineteenth annual meeting of the Nebraska Library Association. The article starts at the bottom of page 394 in Public Libraries, Volume 18. The article outlines the events of the two-day meeting that was held at the Omaha Public Library. Jessie presented a paper on the reading of high school students.
The journal Libraries: A Monthly Review of Library Matters and Methods, Volume 19 provided a few more details about her presentation. Her paper was titled “Stimulation to reading for high-school students.” Her presentation and that of a coworker were “issued in pamphlet form by the Omaha public library.”
As I mentioned before Miss Jessie Towne retired in 1930. She passed away on July 8, 1957. She was survived by her sisters Miss Mary Towne of Omaha and Mrs. Fred Deweese of Lincoln.
While I was researching Jessie, I couldn’t help but find some information about her family. Here are few interesting tidbits of information that I found.
- Jessie’s father Dr. Solon R. Towne sounds like an interesting man. He served as president of both the Nebraska Audubon Society and the Nebraska Tuberculosis Association. You can read more about him in the article “Notes on Dr. Solon R. Towne and Early Bird Study in Omaha and Nebraska” in the April 1964 issue of The Nebraska Bird Review.
- Jessie’s mom Harriet was active in the Omaha Women’s Club and helped to start the Visiting Nurses’ Association in Omaha. You can see a photo of Harriet on page 3 of the document “The Omaha Visiting Nurses Association during the 1920s and 1930s”.
- I learned a bit about her sister Alice in the article “Physical Education for Women at Nebraska University, 1879-1923”. Alice attended and then worked at UNL. In 1908, she was appointed professor and director of the women’s gymnasium. The article contains two pictures of Alice.
Visit Nebraska Memories to search for or browse through many more historical images digitized from photographs, negatives, postcards, maps, lantern slides, books and other materials.
Nebraska Memories is a cooperative project to digitize Nebraska-related historical and cultural heritage materials and make them available to researchers of all ages via the Internet. Nebraska Memories is brought to you by the Nebraska Library Commission. If your institution is interested in participating in Nebraska Memories, see http://nlc.nebraska.gov/nebraskamemories/participation.aspx for more information, contact Devra Dragos, Technology & Access Services Director.