With Valentine’s Day coming up this week, all media advertising is trying to gain their fair share of the millions of dollars consumers spend each year on this one day big event. Besides Mother’s Day and the major holidays, more phone calls, gifts, flowers, candy, and greeting cards will be exchanged than any other time of the year. Girls, sweethearts, and wives expect to be remembered and are disappointed if they are not honored in some way. At least some element of romance is in the air. No one knows exactly when remembering loved ones with valentines really began, but the practice was around in Old England at least during the time of the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. The earliest valentines were handmade and handwritten, but today, the American Greeting Card Association estimates around a billion printed valentines are exchanged yearly. Because today’s women expect special attention on Valentine’s Day, men have learned to at least be tolerant for the sake of domestic tranquility. No doubt many men, however, would prefer things were like they were in days gone by when February 14 was just like any other day. After all, livestock and daily agricultural and household chores don’t recognize some days as being more special than other days. Travel distances and transportation methods didn’t help. It wasn’t practical for the few stores around to waste shelf space with frivolous inventory. Even if no one acknowledged February 14 as a special day, the major concepts associated with Valentine’s Day—LOVE, COURTSHIP, and MARRIAGE—were very important to our ancestors, probably even more then than now.
Love is always mentioned before courtship, but what precedes courtship is more commonly a physical attraction based on appearance and/or personality.
People today put more emphasis on these attributes than people did in the past. Standards for what constitutes beauty have varied from culture to culture and over different time periods. Before 1900, women with fair skin, even lily-white, were deemed more beautiful, as was a woman who was slightly fleshy. Bonnets were considered a necessity. Tanned women with thin bodies were associated with hard physical labor working outdoors, something women of class and status would not have to perform. A good example was Lily Langtree, the English songstress whose portrait hung over Judge Roy Bean’s bar, or Lillian Russell, America’s top female glamour girl in the 1890’s. Attractive women in past years did receive special attention. In Old Bluffton, my great great grandfather, William Richard (Rich) Arnold, operated the community’s main general store. His two oldest daughters were fondly known as “the Belles of Bluffton.” The same was true concerning males. Several years ago, I interviewed a woman in her nineties who continually referred to my Maxwell grandfather’s older brother as “that good looking one.” A brother of my paternal grandmother used to say he might have married a certain girl, but he could never tell which one of her eyes was looking at him! (I assumed she was “cross-eyed.”)
Physical appearance could not have been the primary reason for choosing a mate in days gone by because there just wasn’t that much selection. Transportation and travel distances made it difficult for young people from different parts of the county to mingle with each other. Chances are future spouses were neighbors, and often even a relative. Families were usually large in size, making the opportunity for more than one marriage within the same families a greater possibility. Siblings who marry siblings have children known as “double cousins.” The further back in one’s family tree, the greater the likelihood to find this kind of romantic interaction. There’s nothing the least bit incestuous about the arrangement, but the first cousins born to these unions have DNA packages very similar to those of full blood siblings.
Couples would have grown up together and known each since childhood from school, church, community activities, and social gatherings between families. Courtship took place at these same functions because once again, transportation was a hindrance. I once asked my parents if they ever “parked” when they were dating. My mother said they would have, but they couldn’t “get the horses to stand still long enough!” A lot of courting took place when attending the many dances held throughout Llano County in the early days. Dances were definitely major social events. They were held anywhere there was a large room suitable for such functions, especially upper levels of two-story buildings. If a building was not available, dances were at private homes. In 1880, a man named R.M. Caldwell attending a dance at the Widow Beeman’s home at Long Mountain died from gunshot wounds he received from a bullet fired through a window.
There were few lengthy engagements. Unless a family heirloom was involved, it is unlikely a future bride received both an engagement and a wedding ring. A simple gold band was most often the jewelry selection, probably similar to the one that belonged to Clara Holland Maxwell, my maternal grandmother. Llano County has no early newspapers, and the Burnet Bulletin, which goes as far back as 1878, gives little or no wedding information.
The practice of asking a girl’s father for permission to marry was in vogue in the earliest days. The father of Isaac Byler (Ike) Maxwell’s first wife was dead when he determined to marry Margaret Melcenie (Maggie) Davis, so he probably asked either her widowed mother or her older brother for permission. Following Maggie’s death in 1866, oral history in the Garrett family definitely states Ike asked Merrill Simpson Garrett, the older brother of Abigail Garrett, for permission to marry his sister in 1867 since the Garrett father was not living. Likewise, when Abigail died in 1878, it is likely Ike continued the practice by asking Caleb A. Davis if he could now marry his oldest daughter, Mary Elzira Davis, who became his third wife in 1879.
All the hype associated with the planning of many marriages today would have been viewed ludicrous to our ancestors. Although a few gifts may have been received from close family and friends, a wedding shower was probably not planned. Except for the passing down of family heirlooms, all gifts had practical applications. My parents were given a calf from his parents when they married in 1930. Any organized party would come more in the form of a “pounding,” whereby the couple received food stuff and household supplies purchasable by the pound. For light-hearted fun, couples were often given a “chivaree.” Acquaintances purposely showed up at the couple’s home at night time making noise and other obnoxious distractions designed to disturb “blissful togetherness.” In lieu of wedding showers and gifts, young girls began preparation for their own home several years in advance by keeping a hope chest. Included in her collection were handmade linens and bedding of all kinds, and even some personal garments—anything that might prove useful when the girl became a wife. The great aunts in my Holland family were all big promoters of hope chests. In the 1950’s, they gave me items for a hope chest they had found inside boxes of oatmeal or cornmeal, or various other purchased products, as advertising gimmicks. It was a “fun” project and some things, such as dishes made of carnival glass, are actually popular collector’s items today. Marriages were also a good time for families to give a child a portion of the family’s land holdings. Ike Maxwell gave his oldest son, Jim, acreage south of the Maxwell homestead, just as Maggie’s oldest brother, Thomas Henry Davis, had given Ike and Maggie their first 100 acres of land when they married.
Most couple just got married, with little “muss or fuss,” void of pomp and fanfare. There were few families anywhere in Llano County that had religious backgrounds that promoted long, drawn-out ceremonial rites of matrimony. Marriage licenses were obtained at the closest county seat, which may not have been the county where the couple resided. Those living on the Colorado River found the town of Burnet closer than the town of Llano even if they lived on the eastern side of the river. Other Llano County residents found it more convenient to go to Blanco, Fredericksburg, Mason, or San Saba. A lot of marriages were performed by county judges or justices of the peace instead of in the presence of an ordained minister or church elder. If the wedding was done by a religious official, the marriage was most likely at the bride’s home or some community-based facility, since few communities had any type of church building prior to the 1880’s, including the town of Llano.
Eloping was not common, but it did happen from time to time. The brother of my paternal grandmother helped his first cousin elope against the wishes of the girl’s family. To escape the wrath of the girl’s father, my great uncle chose to leave the area and go visit his father’s brothers who had moved to the Montana/Wyoming border near the end of the cattle drive days. When he arrived, another visiting Llano County relative greeted him in a most unusual manner. Instead of the typical welcome, the man said, “What did YOU do?”
Honeymoons were almost non-existent. With transportation methods as they were, it was difficult to go away for a honeymoon. The newly married couple moved in with either his or her parents until they could arrange for a place of their own. Records indicate Ike Maxwell and his first wife lived in the original Davis homestead until they built their own home a few miles further west, using the first lumber ever cut in the Chadwick Mill at Old Bluffton. In later years, one particular house on the Colorado River was referred to as the “honeymoon cottage” because it was frequently rented to newly married couples in the Bluffton-Tow area. My parents lived there soon after they married, as did several other cousins. They often commented that the walls and ceiling in the old house had holes so large they could see the moon and stars through the cracks when they went to bed at night.
SOURCES: Private visits with members of the Davis, Maxwell, Hallmark, Morgan families, both alive and deceased; COBWEBS & CORNERSTONES (Almond & Franklin, p. 36); GEM OF THE HILL COUNTRY (Oatman, pp. 7,59); MEANEST KID IN TOWN (Alan Townsend, p. 36, 60, 154-5); Wikipedia.org; Llano Co. Commissioner’s Court Minutes, Bk. 1;