The Widow Iliff and the Widow Sage


My grandmother could not wait to belong to her friends’ Widow Club. She sighed and moaned about not being able to be a member, which drove my mom nuts. Mostly, I imagine, because Mom loved her father and didn’t wish him dead. Grandmother, on the other hand, saw him as an impediment to her membership. Once he was gone, she joined, and gleefully enjoyed all the trips and events the Widows went on.

A lot of women come into their own as widows.  But their stories are often erased or minimalized by male historians. This makes ME nuts. So here are the stories of two I’ve discovered. No Widows Club for them – they instead took over the financial empires their husbands had created and made them even more successful. Although I’d like to think that maybe in their spare time, they did hang out with a few widows and tell tales and even maybe play cards. We’ll never know.

Elizabeth Sarah Fraser Iliff I discovered because I live on Iliff Avenue here in Lakewood. The local paper had a long biography of her husband, after whom the street is named, with a brief mention of her. Although he was a man of means in Denver and even founded the Iliff School of Theology, it’s Elizabeth, I’ve since discovered, who had the rule-breaking life.

She left her native Ohio and came west to Chicago to make her living. Since women were supposed to marry, I wonder  how she managed to pull this off. She became a sales representative for Singer Sewing machines in the 1880s. Imagine. She had to travel by train to get to her sales territory and then travel around it by horse and buckboard with a Singer treadle machine in the back of the buckboard.

She must have gone from farmstead to ranch, demonstrating the machine and letting the wives and women on the spread try it out. If there was enough money, they would have ordered one from her and it, in turn, would have been shipped out on the railroad to them. And when the train arrived, I can just see the womenfolk and the men coming into town, a major trek, and everyone exclaiming over the new fanagled device.

Elizabeth Sarah apparently got stuck in the mud somewhere east of Denver on one of her sales rounds and John Wesley Iliff helped her. And eventually married her. She was his second wife.

That marriage rescued her from having to drive around selling sewing machine in the heat of the southwest summer sun, dodging tornados and fending off untoward advances by ranch hands. Probably was a relief. But I bet there were days when she missed it. Or at least the freedom to be so fully herself.

Iliff died and Elizabeth Sarah took over the reigns of his vast commercial empire and made even more money. No fool she. A woman who can demonstrate a sewing machine sitting on the back of a buckboard in 100 degree+ heat can definitely handle a few corporations and the men who work in them.

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage was Russell Sage’s second wife. It’s said he remarried because his reputation as a womanizer was so bad, he needed to legitimatize himself. He was apparently a miserable, hateful man who enjoyed embarrassing and demeaning her in public.

Her family however was poor and her marriage to Sage rescued them. So Olivia (as she was known) took the cruelty. Sage took his time checking out and she was an older woman when he finally died. However she too knew how to run a business and added to the Sage wealth. She also started giving away his money in a series of philanthropic gestures that really impacted on my former home, the village of Sag Harbor on eastern Long Island.

Olivia Slocum Sage gave the village its library, named for her father, John Jermain. It still is privately run, although it receives tax money. She founded the local park, which she named for a native American local chief, Mashashamuet. Her concept for the park was to provide a space for the young women and men who worked in the village’s various industries to be able to go and get some air and some healthy recreation on their Sundays off. After church, of course.

She donated the school, too. And she offered to found a college in the village, but the village turned that one down. I like to think that was okay with Olivia because apparently she felt she had to name the college for her late husband and perhaps she was just a happy not to have his name immortalized in her home village. It’s thought that she named the school for him in part because he was so against the idea of women being educated. It would have distressed him to have provided the funds for a school that let women get a higher education.

It’s also said the Elizabeth Sarah opposed the vote for women. Perhaps she just said that to keep the peace. If Olivia Slocum had an opinion, I haven’t found it but my guess is that she approved—if she funded advanced education for women, she had to believe in the ability of women to make decisions.