A Celebration of Women Writers

"An Ideal Home for Children." by Mrs. Kate Oldham Miller.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 782-786.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 782] 




Visions are sometimes fulfilled. The Dream City is indeed the fulfillment of Tennyson's vision when he

"Saw the heavens filled with commerce argosies of magic sales,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales,
Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furled
In the parliament of man, the federation of the world."

My theme, a vision, is worthy of your attention if only for these two words that the world will not forget: Home and Children. When I visit the magnificent cities of our land there is always one thought that saddens me–the children are in jail. Dashing down Drexel avenue the other day with a gay party of friends, filled with enthusiasm and admiration for the wonderful achievements of man seen in the magic White City and in Chicago itself, I was gay with the rest, when by accident, or, as I believe, by the subtle influence of some higher power, my eyes turned suddenly to a face at a window–the face of a child framed in golden curls all in perfect order. Every delicate ringlet around the pale temples clung just where it should, and the lips were parted, smiling, as she trundled a toy horse on the casement. But the smile seemed sad to me, and the eyes, which must have been blue, looked longingly for something nearer akin to nature.

"Dainty little maiden, whither would you wander,
Whither from this pretty house, this city house of ours?"
"Far and far away," said the dainty little maiden,
"All among the meadows, the clover and the clematis,
Daisies and kingcups and honeysuckle flowers."

I found myself whispering, "Open the window; oh, open the window and let her fly. I would not imprison a bird. God made the birds and the children to be free to learn from nature's books. Let her drink from the running streams, and let the bright curls wave and tangle in the sunlight as she chases the butterflies over the clover."

The city is well for the busy men and women of the world; but the inventor who can contrive some way to have all the children of every condition reared in the country, where the boys may have the natural companionship of animals, where the ponies [Page 783]  come to the door for the girls, where their bodies strengthen and develop that they may lay by a large store of constitution to draw upon when the real work of life begins, will confer a greater benefit on mankind than Promethius, who brought fire from Heaven that the blood of man might be warmed into quicker motion. Another fire we need to keep alive the one that glows but never burns, or burns out all too soon in our dwindling race. Our best men and women are breaking down and passing to dumb inactive dust, with work half finished. Children whose lives begin in the city are apt to take up the serious questions and purposes of existence before the body is able to bear their weight.

They are generally reckoned far in advance of the country child in knowledge, but I think the difference consists rather in kind than quantity. This often makes an exchange of ideas between the city and country child most amusing. They are both kept in a state of perfect amazement during the interview. This is an example: "Mother, Laura says she never saw Washington's monument;" and "Auntie, Charlie says there is no such thing as a spring of nice water running out from a hill, and Charlie won't talk about anything but the mint, and I don't know what is the mint." Then Charlie complains: "Mother, Laura says she sees at her home in the country every colored bird growing loose in the fields and woods–woodchucks, rabbits and squirrels; what are they, Mother, and why don't they come to the city to live?"

One little country miss, anxious to improve her manners, and learning from a city cousin that calling was visiting, was noticed to take up the expression and was soon calling on the cat, the dog, the flowers, and even the garden.

In my life, or in my dreams, it was once my good fortune to see a home created by nature expressly for the children, and as the bees know where to find the sweetest flowers, the children far and near found this ideal home. Often its hospitable roof sheltered as many as thirty of them on a single night, and oh, what happy times they had.

Passing through a long rolling pasture, with its carpet of blue grass, you came to the old-fashioned farmhouse, green with its vines and its flowers, and all the air fragrant with the breath of the honeysuckle and the rose. Its beauties began to burst upon you the moment the gate of the dusty highway closed, and one thought filled all your mind–the thought of "Home, Sweet, Home." Large sturdy oaks stood as sentinels in speaking distance of each other near the entrance to the farm and through their midst a tiny stream meandered, just that its miniature banks might be ornamented with wild flowers and beautiful dark stones, some of them large enough for the children, on the rare summer days when they wandered that far from home, to call cliffs of the far-famed Hudson; or if the fancy struck them the stream was the Kentucky River, and they legislated about "locking and damming," making thrilling speeches from the pinnacles of the largest stones. I can not think of one thing lacking in this ideal home for children. It had its haunted house, that dream of childhood, just in sight about half a mile from the dwelling, a heavy structure built of rough, undressed stones, tall, angular and cold. Near to the ground a black hole yawned, in reality, the entrance to the cellar, but to the imaginative child well instructed in such lore by the more imaginative negro, the very entrance to the unseen world. The children were proud of the possession of the old "stone house." Only half believed the stores about it, but took their strolls in other parts of the ground unless strongly guarded. Whenever they passed near its tall, cold walls it was with bated breath, turning their heads away and unconsciously quickening their steps. If perchance a stray sheep was noisily licking salt in the open, unused pantry, it was to them "a confirmation strong as proofs of holy writ."

Entering the inclosure near the home, the whole country around seemed under the shade of the royal locusts which grew there. Over a hundred feet in height, and measuring from three to five feet in diameter, they told of many years gone by, and as the bold boy climbed into their dizzy heights, and dropped the snowy flowers on the heads and into the aprons of the children playing below, the locusts whispered and the children heard: [Page 784] 

"We have stood many years in the sun and the rain,
And crowned many children before you came,
Our blossoms as white, their fragrance the same,
Then the noisy blackbird, raising his wing,
On the topmost branch would shout spring! spring!
The locust, our home, is king, king!
Wait, chirped the robin, you'll see, you'll see!
From the boughs of the black-heart cherry-tree."

How the bodies of children grow and strengthen in such a place, ay, and their minds as well. They are laying by a fund of useful knowledge, and study ornithology and natural history fresh from Nature's hands.

The fine old garden, which made a part of this ideal home, with its broad walks crossing at right angles in the center, was a world within itself to the children. It was as full of birds as of flowers; and the beautiful borders of blue-bells, snow-drops and lilies of the valley, the lilac, the snow-ball, and the mock orange trees, all belonged to them. They made seats in their shade and swinging shelves from their branches, which converted into gorgeous flower-decked tables for the marriage supper of a favorite doll. Here they made beautiful, soft, green nests for the birds, and when they had set them in the boughs wondered why, and grieved because, their little friends did not use them. Through the shady yard, which stretched out from the long back porch, where the damson and the plum trees grew, a narrow path through the grass led to a dear old lumber-house on the brink of "Spring Hill;" three stories high it stood, with a large, round ice-house underneath, all walled up with stone, that seemed to be always about half-full of ice and pretty yellow straw. Inside there were old looms, those clumsy devices of a past age, curious little spindles, broaches, quills, shuttles, bits of woven cloth, moth-eaten balls of yarn, wheels to turn and cords to twist, the cast-off occupation of a people who were now devoting all their time and abilities to the new business of voting. These happy children had fallen heirs to the whole, together with some little black children which their aspiring and ambitious parents had left behind. The first they put to uses new and strange, the last they taught to love them, and for the sake of that love, to make themselves useful then and in after years. Many bright winter days were there, but summer-time brought them to the orchard just beyond, the finest in all the country round, and which furnished apples through all the autumn and winter. At the foot of the hill was the stone walled spring and milk house, from which milk and water seemed to flow with like abundance. Below the spring a huge flat rock, tilted up on the hill at just the right angle for sliding on boards from top to bottom, affording a trial of skill and good muscular exercise to climb to the top again. Oh, happy time! Oh, charming place! Was there ever a better one for children? On the banks of the artificial pool, below this gushing underground spring, were molded from the fine blue and white clay marvelous tea-pots, all kinds of dishes, horses, camels and buffaloes with humps on the backs that would make the originals blush for shame. No sculptor whose works now adorn the Art Place was ever prouder of his achievements that these who molded blue clay at the foot of "Spring Hill."

Sometimes wandering down the spring branch through the beds of mint dipping in the cool water, and chewing the fragrant leaves, they came to a stream of more importance in their eyes because they knew it to be the headwater of a creek not far away, which emptied into a river that flowed into the great Mississippi, then to the Gulf; and so in fancy they followed the waters all over the world, from the spring which gushed from the hillside in their own yard, and often started out a little craft talking of the possibility of its reaching the sea. Their bodies grew and the minds expanded as they wandered down the stream to where it dashed over a fall fifteen feet high, bubbled and rolled through a wild ravine. The waterfall they called the Niagara, and it was to them a veritable illustration of that wonder of creation. Thus [Page 785]  they mapped out in the pleasant fields and streams everything they learned, and geography became an open book.

The ravine was deep and dark, romantic and beautiful, in some places completely hidden by the overlapping branches and huge boulders which had rolled down from the hills; again opening into a small valley dotted thick with daises and blue forget-me-nots. Upon the steep hillsides the wake-robbins grew in the crevices of the rocks and the woodbine clambered up their sides; twenty-five or thirty varieties of flowers were often collected on a single expedition, and thus with a little help from mother or governess botany was learned without study. It needed but a small stretch of the imagination to people this weird place with elves and fairies; echo shouted to them from the hills; Narcissus smiled at his face in the brook, and Orpheus moaned among the trees for Eurydice. They learned all the myths and legends of the Ancients, for they had need of them. Having the groves, the cliffs, and the streams, they must find for them inhabitants. Oh that every child could be reared in such a paradise. While the mind thus feasts on the good things of nature and assimilates them, the body is nourished by the purest food; fresh vegetables and berries from the garden never stale or withered; fruits juicy and ripe from the orchard in summer, and the same preserved after the most approved style in winter, with only the freshest of milk, butter and eggs that never gave out.

These children of this ideal home were bound by few rules, unwholesome food and imposition on each other were almost the only things forbidden. They never seemed to be watched, guarded or chaperoned. Their wonder was how "the umpire" or the "the Physician" always appeared on the scene, unbidden, when a difficulty or an accident occurred; it was almost a superstitious belief with them that all trouble came bringing with it "the remedy."

About the old house of my dream were endless pleasant nooks and apartments; the children loved to gather in the "family room" and hear the old folks talk, and to sit on the straight, long seats in the high portico in front of the parlor door, shaded by the green vines, and watch the humming-birds. One place in particular the children and their visitors loved. It was a large upper room, the farthest removed from that occupied by the heads of the family, that they might not be disturbed by the noise, full of light and sunshine and warmed by a big open wood fire, with ceiling high and white and a pretty flowered carpet. Here they played their games in winter, dressed their dolls, and at the approach of the Merry Christmas season, with the door carefully locked or guarded, with an air of greatest secrecy and mystery, they contrived all kinds of surprises for the grown members of the family and the smaller children. They became adepts in the art of needlework, in the use of paste and scissors, made pincushions, 'kerchief bags, letter boxes, paper holders, pretty little chairs, etc. One old lady said admiringly: only give the little witches the material and they could make a hornet's nest. All the interior of the house and the grounds was a faint foreshadowing of this wonderful Woman's Building. The clay dishes and statuary, the swinging seats in the trees, the bridge over the spring branch, the curious headdresses, baskets plaited from the long trailing branches of the weeping willow, the bur baskets, the moss-covered swinging baskets for delicate vines and flowers were all the work of the feminine fingers or the invention of feminine minds. There were just enough boys to be useful, and the girls were inclined to be a "Board of Lady Managers."

So ran my pleasant dream of happy childhood's happy home.

"But if I dream that all these are
   They are to me for that I dream,
For all things are as they seem to all
   And all things flow like a stream."

Are not these things infinitely better than Fifth Avenue, the Mint, Smithsonian [Page 786]  Institution, the wonders of Libby Prison, or even a menagerie for the children? Are they not better for the growing mind and body than the Lottery, the city streets, cigarettes, smoke and dust, or even elegant steam-heated or furnace-heated mansions? Make homes like this for the children and man's days will be a hundred years on the earth and great things will be accomplished.

"Is the goal so far away?
Far, how far no one can say;
Let us dream our dream today.
*   *   *   *   *
And mix the seasons and the golden hours,
Till each man find his own in all men's good,
And all men work in noble brotherhood."

[Page 782] 

Mrs. Kate Oldham Miller is a native of Kentucky. She is the daughter of William K. Oldham of Kentucky, and J. Kate Brown Oldham of Virginia. She was educated for the most part at home under private tutors, but was graduated from the Richmond Female Seminary of Kentucky. She has given several years of her life to teaching select schools, and is a most successful and popular teacher. In 1885 she married Mr. Will H. Miller, for many years the efficient and popular circuit clerk of Madison County, Kentucky, where they still reside. Mrs. Miller is a handsome, accomplished and gifted woman. She does not claim to be an author in any sense, but has from time to time published short articles in periodicals that have always elicited favorable comment. She is a member of the Regular Baptist Church. Her postoffice address is Richmond, KY.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Tammy Watson.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom