Delia (TEEVAN) LEWIS (1860-1932)

A remarkable businesswoman

Co-Authors: Gail Gruetzman and Kaye (Gruetzman) Olson, Delia’s great-granddaughters

The only known photograph of Delia Teevan – 1880

Delia (Teevan) Lewis, our great-grandmother, was a successful businesswoman in the millinery profession. She overcame a difficult early life in Ireland and premature separation from her parents, siblings, and birth country to found a thriving hat shop which continued as a family business for over 60 years in the United States. Delia’s mentor, a well-off businesswoman of Irish descent and a relative, introduced young Delia to life in the U.S. in the Deep South not long after the end of the devastating U.S. Civil War.

Delia Teevan was born December 26, 1860, in County Cavan, Ireland, to the farming family of Bernard Teevan and Bessie (Brady) Teevan. Griffith’s Valuation, which covered the years 1848-1864, discloses that Bernard rented farmland from the Reverend Arthur Knox in the Townland of Cullentragh, Castleterra Parish. Eventually the hardworking family would own the land on which they farmed.

Born into a devout Roman Catholic family, Delia was not an only child. She had at least 7 siblings: Thomas, born ca 1855; Catharine, ca 1857; Rose 1862; Mary, ca 1863; Andrew 1864; Annie 1867; and Bessie, ca 1870. Due to the fact that Roman Catholic County Cavan records are missing between the years of 1809 and 1862, we have been unable to obtain documents about many vital events surrounding this family. The implementation of Irish Civil Registration in 1864 allowed us to confirm some dates for events that occurred after 1863.

Such a large family of very modest means would have struggled in any environment, not to mention Ireland in the mid-1800s. Though it’s impossible to go back in time and read the minds of parents Bernard and Bessie, a decision was made by them at some point to send most of their children to the United States of America, the land of opportunity. The eldest son Thomas stayed in Ireland with his parents to work on the farm. Rose may have died young and no record of her emigrating or living in the U.S. has ever been found. The other six siblings crossed the Atlantic Ocean separately over a couple of decades to establish lives in America. All died in and were buried in the U.S.

An official emigration year for Delia has not been found, but various documents have narrowed down her arrival in the U.S. to between 1869 and 1874 (when she was between the ages of 9 and 14 years old). She was likely the first in her family to emigrate. The exact circumstances of her voyage across the ocean are unknown, including whether or not she traveled with a relative. Her final destination was Mobile, Alabama, near the Gulf of Mexico.

One wonders who raised and educated Delia if she arrived in the U.S. between the ages of 9-14. She doesn’t show on any U.S. censuses early on. Family writings, especially information from Delia’s daughter (our grandmother), convey a scenario which involved a Mrs. Margaret (McHugh) Kehoe of Mobile, AL, having a significant hand in Delia’s upbringing. Unfortunately, even after an extensive family history research trip to Mobile, virtually nothing is known of Delia’s early years in the U.S.

The first official glimpse of Delia in the U.S. is on the 1880 U.S. census living at 245 Dauphin St. in Mobile when she would have been about 20 years old. She is residing at the address of a property owned by Margaret (McHugh) Kehoe and used as a millinery store. Delia’s occupation on the census says she is a milliner. We know Margaret Kehoe was close to Delia and her family, however, the only evidence that we have of Delia being related to Margaret Kehoe is from Mrs. Kehoe’s will, where she bequeathed property to Delia and referred to Delia as her niece. So, going forward in this writing,

Mrs. Kehoe will be referred to as Aunt Margaret. No blood relationship between the two has been confirmed in other documents due to the lack of Irish records covering the years involved.

If Delia’s early years have several blank pages yet to be filled in, it is even more so with Aunt Margaret. Even Margaret’s Irish county of origin is a mystery. Margaret appears to have arrived in the U.S. from Ireland in the mid-to-late 1840s, along with five McHugh siblings. They first appear in the U.S. living in Mobile, Alabama, on the 1850 census. Estimated birth years for the siblings, based on death certificates and grave stones, are: James, ca 1824; Margaret, ca 1829; Catharine, ca 1830; Mary, ca 1833; Bridget/Anna, ca 1836; and Patrick, ca 1838. Based on the estimated birth dates, the McHugh siblings were fairly young when arriving in the U.S. No parental figures can be identified as arriving with or living with the children on the 1850 or 1860 U.S. censuses, so it is believed that the McHugh parents, and perhaps additional siblings, remained in Ireland.

The lives of the McHugh siblings appear somewhat bleak on 1850 and 1860 U.S. census forms. They are tenants in Mobile boarding houses crowded with many residents, most of them Irish immigrants. Only James is shown as employed – he was a clerk.

Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries in sorting out the lives of Delia and her Aunt Margaret surrounds a significant event, specifics undetermined, which occurred in the mid-1860s, prior to Delia’s emigration to the U.S. Aunt Margaret suddenly became a wealthy woman. Speculation exists about what might have transpired: 1) Could Margaret’s business instincts have formed a profitable enterprise during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)? 2) What about the death of Margaret’s mother in 1867? No information has been found to indicate that Margaret inherited money from her mother and no trace of Margaret’s father has ever been found. 3) Her brother James died in 1864 – did he have money? Probate documents don’t indicate that James had substantial means. Margaret did not marry until 1869 and her husband was not well-to-do, so marriage was not the source of her new-found affluence. Whatever occurred, the sudden prosperity did not seem to encompass Margaret’s siblings, indicating that circumstances specific to Margaret alone brought about her financial transformation. Without Margaret’s surprising economic turnaround, Delia’s life might have been much different than it was.

Aunt Margaret did not sit back and take it easy after her sudden prosperity. She worked hard to grow her wealth. She financed mortgage notes; invested in stocks and bonds; purchased several rental properties in Mobile and a farm outside of Mobile; and diversified her millinery business, branching out to a general store carrying a wide variety of fine imported goods. She also gave large contributions of money to Catholic charities in Mobile. It was Margaret’s financial resources and her business acumen and mentoring that enabled her to have a very positive influence on Delia and to introduce Delia to the finer things in life.

Sometime in the early- to mid-1880s, Delia decided to move to the state of Wisconsin in the northern U.S. There she would be close to her Aunt Anna (McHugh) Bock, Margaret’s sister, who had moved to Wisconsin from Mobile in the 1870s. For Delia as a young woman, such a move would have been very exciting and an adventure! Aunt Anna had married a wealthy businessman who operated a distillery and raised Standardbred racing horses. Delia would be comfortable living with or near them. No doubt Aunt Margaret in Mobile would miss Delia very much.

Delia fell in love and married Frank E. Lewis (of English descent) in Wisconsin in 1886. This was the start of another major chapter in her life. Around the time of her marriage, she opened a millinery business in Richland Center, WI. Oral and written family history maintains that Aunt Margaret provided at least some of the funding to open the shop and likely plenty of business advice!

Delia bore a son in 1887. She named him Teevan Franklin Lewis. The baby’s given name of Teevan was in honor of Delia’s maiden surname. However, it is believed that Delia may have had unhappy memories of her early life and may have resented her parents shipping her off to a foreign country at such a young age. In fact, over her lifetime, Delia talked very little about her Irish heritage to her descendants. Even on official documents, such as her death certificate, her parents’ names are left blank. Her one nod to her background was the name she gave her firstborn.

Nellie Lewis as a young lady

Delia Lewis’ second child, Nellie Margaret Lewis (our grandmother), was born in 1889. It appears more likely than not that Nellie’s middle name was in honor of dear Aunt Margaret in Mobile! Less than four months after Nellie’s birth, Delia’s son Teevan sadly died from meningitis. Nellie now became an only child, receiving the best of everything, including painting lessons, piano lessons, nice clothes, and a warm home.

As Aunt Margaret had done with Delia, Delia educated her young daughter about running a business and about the fine art of making hats in the latest fashion trends. Delia took young Nellie with her on train excursions to Chicago, Illinois, to purchase the latest styles in hats for the Lewis Hat Shop. In Chicago they stayed at the famous Palmer House Hotel (still in operation today) and took in the sights and entertainment of the Big City. After buying the basic hat forms in Chicago, along with trimming materials, the glamorous finishing touches and customization of the hats were completed back at the hat shop in Wisconsin by employees called “makers” and “trimmers”.

Aunt Margaret passed away in 1904 in Wisconsin at the estimated age of 75, leaving a void in Delia’s and Nellie’s lives. As Margaret’s siblings in Mobile had died, she and her husband had reluctantly left their beloved Mobile and moved to Wisconsin in the 1890s to be near her sister Anna’s family and Delia’s family. Margaret and her husband never had any children of their own. After her death, Margaret’s husband sent her remains back to her beloved Mobile for burial next to her siblings in a tranquil plot with lovely monuments in the Catholic Cemetery.

As Delia grew older, Nellie gradually took over the reins of running the millinery business under her mother’s watchful eyes, continuing the tradition of millinery buying trips to Chicago with one of her own daughters. In 1912, Nellie had married John Roscoe Annear and soon had four children of her own, Gladys May, our mother (1914); Nellie Doris (1916); Lewis James (1918); and Roscoe Jerome (1920). Nellie’s firstborn, John, had died when he was less than a year old.

While Delia and her business and family were thriving in Wisconsin, Delia’s immigrant siblings were struggling in the northeastern U.S. in the state of Massachusetts. It has never been determined how Delia came to settle in Mobile, AL, after immigrating, yet her siblings had settled in the area of Boston, MA. Family research has unveiled problems for our Massachusetts Irish immigrants that are similar to the problems experienced by many other Irish immigrants in the U.S. during that time. While Aunt Margaret and Delia lived in homes that employed at least one servant, two of Delia’s sisters were employed as servants in the homes of others. One can only hope that there were some bright spots and moments of joy in their lives. Our Delia was lucky indeed to have been taken under the wing of her Aunt Margaret and gently guided towards a better life.

In addition to the lengthy geographical distance between Delia and her siblings, there appear to have been some differences that permeated their relationships. Minimal communication existed between the Boston Teevan families and Delia in Wisconsin. Perhaps the siblings in Boston were somewhat covetous of the perceived easier life that Delia had acquired in Mobile and that transferred with her to Wisconsin.

Delia passed away on September 2, 1932, at the age of 71 years. Her obituary appeared in two newspapers and lauded her life: “In her death the city loses its oldest business woman and her death is keenly felt by her long list of warm friends throughout the city and county.” Delia is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Richland Center, WI.

After Delia’s death, Nellie (Lewis) Annear carried on with her mother’s popular and successful millinery business. In 1940, after 54 continuous years with mother or daughter as the proprietors, Nellie sold the shop. But, fifteen years later, Nellie’s daughter Nellie Doris, also known as “Dode”, purchased the shop that had such strong family ties. Mother Nellie helped out in the shop now owned by the daughter who had accompanied her on buying trips to Chicago many years prior. But by the early- to mid-1960s the millinery business had changed and hats were no longer an important part of dressing stylishly. The shop was sold outside of the family of Delia’s descendants for the last time in 1966.

Delia’s daughter Nellie died at the ripe old age of 103 on December 14, 1992. Mother and daughter had shared a deep Catholic faith and a love for the fine arts. Delia’s influence guided Nellie to write poems and short stories, paint fine artwork, appreciate music, and play her grand piano.

Delia’s legacy of hard work and entrepreneurship lasted many decades, affecting the lives of numerous people for the better, not just family members but also friends and fellow citizens. We are very proud of her.

A Tip O’ the Hat to Gladys (Annear) Gruetzman: The story of Delia’s life would not be as complete as it is without the detective work of Gladys (Annear) Gruetzman, our mother and Delia’s granddaughter, who doggedly pursued the vague information known about Delia and turned it into facts wherever possible, long before the Internet and online databases. In the 1960s, Gladys had corresponded with Thomas Teevan, the son of Delia’s brother Thomas, who had remained in Ireland.

Lewis Hat Shop, Richland Center, WI, USA, circa 1910
[Used with permission of Richland County History Room, Richland Center, WI, USA]


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