Grace Robertson Bowen

One of the Four Founding Members of the Chevy Chase Reading Class
   

 

Grace Robertson Bowen, 1873-1962

Eva Grace Robertson was the eighth child born to Thomas J. W. Robertson and Jane Matilda Turner, both immigrants from England in the mid-1850s. After spending several years in Brooklyn working as an “inventor,” Thomas Robertson moved with his wife and six children to Washington, DC in 1869 to work as a clerk at a patent agency. Two additional children were born after their move: Thomas Ernest Robertson in 1871 and Eva Grace Robertson on November 12, 1873.

Following her graduation from high school, and thanks to her brother Thomas, Grace soon found herself a resident of the newly-formed suburban community of Chevy Chase, Maryland. After receiving a law degree from Columbian College, now George Washington University, Thomas Robertson purchased a house in 1895 at 6 West Melrose Street. From early city directory records, it appears that his parents and his sister Grace moved to the same house.

Another important influence on young Grace involving her brother came as the result of a bike ride Thomas took in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. According to family members, it was on this ride that Thomas met Mary Brackett, who was not only a teacher at Storer College but the daughter of the school’s founder and first president, Rev. Nathan Brackett. On June 29, 1897, Grace served as bridesmaid when Thomas Robertson and Mary Brackett were married at Curtis Free Baptist Church in Harper’s Ferry, with Rev. Brackett officiating. By the end of the following year, Grace herself had found a husband, Jesse Chester Bowen.


Jesse Chester Bowen, 1865-1948

Born the son of a printer in Branch County, Michigan in 1865, Jesse Chester Bowen came to Washington, perhaps as early as 1890, to attend Columbian University. He found work as a clerk in the recently formed Bureau of Labor, where he would eventually become a chief statistician, or “expert” in the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On October 25, 1898, Grace Robertson and Jesse Bowen were married at the Robertson house on West Melrose. Their wedding was reported in The Evening Star as the first to take place in Chevy Chase.  One month earlier, Jesse purchased lots 6 and 7 in Block 2, in a new section of Chevy Chase called Otterbourne, perhaps with the idea of building a home there.  As it turns out, Grace and Jesse later sold this property.


Life in Chevy Chase in the late 1890s

Grace adapted well to her new surroundings in Chevy Chase.  In 1897, the year before her wedding to Jesse, her brother Thomas and his wife Mary were among the founders of the new All Saints Episcopal Church on Chevy Chase Circle. Mary Robertson served as Sunday School Superintendent and Grace Bowen is listed as one of the officers. Both women were also members of the St. Agnes Guild at the church. One of their lasting contributions to the early Chevy Chase community, however, came in 1899, when they and two other women formed the Chevy Chase Reading Class, an organization that Grace would be involved in for the next 40 years. Grace was very active in the Chevy Chase Library Association, Chevy Chase Literary Club, the Florence Crittenton Circle, and the American Red Cross during World War I.

 

Grace and Jesse’s Daughters, Hilda and Cora

In 1901 Grace gave birth to the first of her two daughters, Hilda Chester Bowen, followed a year later by Cora Robertson Bowen. One of the highlights of the girls’ early years was on September 29, 1907, when their father took them to join the crowd of 20,000 others as President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone marking the beginning of construction of the National Cathedral. At one point, their father said to them, “I hope you live long enough to see this finished, but I doubt you will.” (Eighty-three years later, the sisters were two of the seven people still alive to have witnessed both the cornerstone laying and the placement of the final “filial” in 1990. They were both featured in an article in The Washington Post and Hilda was interviewed on ABC’s Good Morning America.)


 

 
   
Grace and Jesse Bowen with their daughters, 1902. Photo courtesy of their granddaughter, Mrs. Mary Eleanor McNulty.

 

Participation in the Chevy Chase Reading Class

Like other Reading Class members, Grace took her turn leading meetings of the group. In addition to hosting the Reading Class several times, she led numerous “presentations” on the day’s reading, including those on Dante, Milton, Schiller, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Kipling. Two of the more interesting books she reviewed were The Magic Island, by William B. Seabrook and The Mansion, by Henry Van Dyke.  The Magic Island  “depict[ed] men’s and women’s bodies possessed by foreign masters, the enslaved resurrected bodies of the undead who populate the cane fields of Haiti laboring for the enrichment of the U.S sugar industry.” The Mansion was about the merits of altruism.


Living with Their Extended Family at 6 West Melrose Street

In 1910, Jesse and Grace bought a house at 5 West Lenox Street, but they only lived there for a short time before moving in with the Robertson family at 6 West Melrose Street. Vacations were often spent in Harper’s Ferry, or closer to home at Ashantee-on-the-Potomac. There at their summer cottage on Sycamore Island below Glen Echo, Grace entertained the Reading Class at least on one occasion, and her daughters Hilda and Cora hosted a party for their friends. The Sycamore Island Pleasure Club, formed in 1885 as a men-only canoeing club, often held “family picnics, river outings, and oyster roasts,” with beer selling from 3 to 5 cents a glass as well as cigars. Women were admitted as members in 1914.


Hilda and Cora Leave Home

In 1918, Hilda entered the University of Michigan which she attended for two years before transferring to George Washington University in DC in 1920. That same year, Cora began studies at Goucher College. In April 1921, the Grace and Jesse Bowen announced Hilda’s engagement to Dorsey J. Griffith.

By 1923, Cora Bowen had transferred to the Maryland State Normal School in Baltimore (now Towson University); she received her teacher’s certificate in 1925. After teaching in Chevy Chase for several years, she accepted a position in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1928. She returned to the DC area and by 1940, she was teaching at Leland Junior High School in Chevy Chase.

In 1925, Hilda gave birth to her first child Mary, and Grace and Jesse became grandparents. Hilda and her husband ran an antique business in downtown D.C. Dorsey Griffith was named indoor track coach at The Catholic University around 1930, but he continued to be involved with antiques for the rest of his life.

In the early 1930s, Jesse Bowen was named Chief Statistician for the Bureau of Labor Statistics with an annual salary of $5,600. Several years earlier, Grace’s brother, Thomas Robertson, was named Commissioner of Patents.


The Great Depression

In the period leading up to the Great Depression, there were three families living at 6 West Melrose Street: the owners, Thomas and Mary Robertson; their son Nathan Robertson and his new wife; Jesse and Grace Bowen and their 28-year-old daughter Cora; and a domestic servant. Within a few years, Nathan and his wife moved to a smaller house on Shepherd Street. He would later switch houses with his parents. As part of these change in living arrangements, Grace and Jesse moved in with their daughter Hilda at 4365 Lee Highway in Arlington.  Hilda and Dorsey Griffiths had moved their antique business from DC to Arlington.


The 1940s

On April 11, 1944, Cora Bowen married Norman Irving Martin, a widower 34 years her senior. The wedding was held at Hilda and Dorsey Griffith’s house on Lee Highway in Arlington. Then Cora and her husband took up residence at Mr. Martin’s home in Kensington, Maryland.

Not long after Cora’s wedding, Hilda and Dorsey Griffith divorced.  Dorsey moved to New Market, Maryland, while Hilda remained at the home in Arlington with her parents.


Almost 50 Years of Marriage

In 1948, Grace and Jesse would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in October.  Sadly Jesse died on April 11 at his daughter Hilda’s home in Arlington. As she approached her 89th birthday, Grace’s health began to fail, and she was placed in the Ft. Ward Home of Convalescence in Alexandria. She died there on March 10, 1962.


A Legacy of Social Engagement

As with many of the women in the Chevy Chase Reading Class, their initiative, drive, and participation in the social issues of the day were passed on to their children. Many became teachers such as Cora. Others, such as Hilda, continued to provide active leadership in local and regional organizations that benefited society. As a teenager, Hilda had marched for women’s suffrage, and in later years she was deeply involved in political, historical, and charitable organizations in the Washington area.

The last few years for both Hilda and Cora were spent in a nursing home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. There, on May 18, 1992, Hilda died at the age of 91. Cora would follow her within a few years. These two sisters born a year apart into a close-knit well-educated, socially-aware family, left their own legacy behind as had their mother Grace Robertson Bowen.

 

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