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Mrs. Isabella Custance Grayson

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Mrs. Isabella Custance Grayson

Posted: 1141850873000
Classification: Biography
Surnames: Grayston, Custance
From Biographical Memoirs of Huntington County, 1901, pages 312-321

For the facts contained in this sketch of one of Huntington’s most remarkable women, the writer is indebted to a very interesting autobiography recently written for the benefit of her children and descendants. To this labor of love Mrs. Grayston has devoted her leisure hours during the past two years, and it is the wish of her many friends that the article in its entirety may at some future time be put in permanent form. It is exceedingly entertaining throughout, and gives in detail her many thrilling experiences on sea and land, together with a vivid pen picture of life such as prevailed in the Wabash valley in the pioneer times of long ago.

Miss Isabella Custance was born in the beautiful little village of Sutton, in the isle of Ely, six miles from the romantic city of Ely, noted the world over for its old histric (sic) cathedral. The village stands on a picturesque site, and the cottage occupied by the Custance family, with its large back yard, beautiful garden and the front bordering on the sidewalk, is almost an exact counterpart of the famous Shakespeare house in Stratford on Avon. Miss Custance’s father was a farmer of the better class, and cultivated quite an area of fertile fen lands from which he derived an income sufficiently liberal to bring up his family in comparative luxury and provide for his children the advantages of an education superior to that enjoyed by the majority of his neighbors and fellow townsmen. The youthful days of Isabella were spent in outdoor sports, such as English misses enjoy, and in winter time the large rooms of the old-fashioned residence were placed at the disposal of the children, who made the walls ring and reverberate with merriment and joyous laughter. The household, like many English homes, was almost ideal in its appointments, and the healthful spirits of its inmates, and for years nothing occurred to mar the peace or cause a break in the circle around the family hearthstone. In due time a change, such as must sooner or later come to all, broke upon the serenity of the happy home. This was the death of the father, who, in the prime of vigorous manhood and at the early age of thirty-five, answered the summons that called him from the scenes of his earthly labors and joys. He left a widow with three children dependent upon her, also the care of the estate, out of which, in due time, two or three legacies were to be paid. Isabella was quite small when this blow fell, and having no remembrance of her father, could not, of course, realize the force of the bereavement which came with such power to the other members of the family. Prior to his death the father, realizing that the end was not far off, appointed guardians for his children, thus in a great measure relieving the mother of a most trying responsibility. Two years later she married an Episcopal clergyman, who had been appointed by his superiors to a post as missionary in Canada; and it was not long until preparations began for the long journey to the new home in that far-away country.

The breaking up of home ties, sad and pathetic under all circumstances, was to this family peculiarly trying, as the old place and its surroundings, the village containing so many whole-hearted friends, indeed all the familiar scenes were endeared to the mother and children by many tender and cherished associations.

Bidding a tearful farewell to the old homestead and numerous friends gathered to see them off, the family went to London, and there, boarding the good ship Sampson, of the Cunard line, set out for the new world and new destinies. Some years previous to this time an aunt of the subject, her mother’s sister, had gone to the United States and settled at Poughkeepsie, New York; and it was that place the family hoped to visit before proceeding to their final destination in Canada. The voyage, undertaken with so many happy anticipations, did not prove at all auspicious. After being at sea five weeks the ship’s bearings were lost in a dense fog, and for a number of days it drifted out of the usual course. Finally the fog became so thick that the captain admitted his inability to proceed further with safety, while the five hundred passengers were filled with a vague and indefinable dread of some approaching danger or catastrophe. The worst was realized one night about 12 o’clock, when the grand old vessel was heard to strike upon a rock, causing it to shiver from stem to stern and bringing everybody in the greatest excitement at once to the deck. The place where the vessel grounded was a dangerous reef near Sable island, about one hundred and forty miles south of Halifax. It is said that in one year over two hundred lives had previously been lost on this shoal, a fact which added greatly to the fear of those on board the Sampson; amid the rocking and surging of the vessel, the crushing of her bottom and sides and the rapidly filling of the hold, they expected momentarily to find watery graves or perhaps meet with more cruel forms of death by being mangled on the sharp rocks which showed their jagged heads above the foam. With no hope of escape, both passengers and crew, after the first wild excitement had subsided, settled themselves into a kind of quiet despair to await the dawn, if perchance any of them should be permitted to witness again the rising of the sun. Mrs. Grayston recalls a little incident of the wreck in which she rebuked her mother for displaying such a lack of faith in the kindness and protection of the God who rules both earth and sea; while the mother was wringing her hands in despair, the little girl, with the utmost assurance and most implicit trust, asked her if God was not able to take care of His own upon water as well as upon land, adding, “you always taught me so.”

Time passed, as it always does, and with the clearing away of the fog at the approach of daylight, the pleasing discovery was made that the ship lay less than three-quarters of a mile from the shores of Sable island. The work of rescue at once began by loading the boats, first with women and children, and rowing through the rough waters to the land. In due time, after much hard labor and untold mental agony, the passengers, many of them in their night dresses, were landed in safety, not a soul on board being lost. Cold and drenched to the skin, they now found themselves upon a rocky ledge, exposed to the cutting winds and suffering such as tongue has not power to describe. By reason of being wedged tightly between two large rocks, the ship was prevented from sinking, and by keeping the pumps constantly going a part of the cargo and a goodly share of the provisions were saved.

About a half mile from the scene of the wreck there was a settlement of fishermen, and thither the passenegrs (sic) were taken as soon as they could be removed. Word was sent to Halifax, and in due time a government vessel made its appearance and conveyed the entire wet, bedraggled crowd to that city.

By reason of exposure and suffering caused by the wreck, the health of Mrs. Grayston’s mother became greatly impaired. Remembering that her first husband’s brother had years before settled somewhere in Nova Scotia, she began making inquiries as to his place of residence and if he were still alive. Her husband also made careful inquiry of a number of persons in Halifax if they knew anybody by the name of Custance living near the city. Fortunately he was at last located in that part of the country immortalized by Longfellow in “Evangeline,” and thither, as soon as able, the poor sick mother was taken, and it is needless to state that a warm and generous welcome awaited the long-separated relatives. Although given the tenderest care that loving hands could minister and the best medical treatment obtainable, the worn-out body at last succumbed to a fatal attack of brain fever; she died and was laid to rest in beautiful Arcadia, far removed from home and all she held dear in this life.

At this time Isabella was a miss of eight years, and there were with her in the strange land a sister six years her senior and a brother about eleven years of age. For some reason their step-father did not give these children the attention which one in his situation should, and shortly thereafter he departed for his post, leaving them almost destitute to the care of their relatives. Word was finally sent to their uncle at Poughkeepsie, New York, who, as soon as he learned of their condition, made haste to go to their relief. Bidding good-bye to the friends who had shown so much kindness to them in their sorrow, the three children accompanied their uncle to his home, making the trip from Nova Scotia through the bay of Fundy to the Atlantic, thence to Boston, where the party took a vessel for New York city.

After a few days the steamer struck a sand bar not far from Sandy Hook, where another wreck was narrowly averted. The passengers were immediately transferred to life boats, the greater part of the baggage thrown overboard, and within a very short time after leaving the vessel it sank, and with it went down all of the cargo and many personal effects of those on board. The boats landed their load of human freight on Sandy Hook, and a vessel bound for the city kindly took them up and in due time landed them at the wharf of America’s great bustling metropolis. From New York the remainder of the trip to Poughkeepsie was made without any accident or mishap of any kind, and there, attended by all that the love and affection of her relatives could lavish, Isabella and her brother and sister spent two most enjoyable years. While living in her uncle’s family she formed a number of very pleasant acquaintances, which ultimately ripened into life-long friendships, some of which she still enjoys, although sixty-three years have dragged their weary lengths since she was welcomed to the hospitable fireside of the New York home. Learning that her guardian in England refused to remit any money, and that he desired her to return to the land of her nativity for the purpose of receiving her education, Isabella took passage for London, and for the third time set out upon a sea voyage, leaving her brother in the United States, where he remained for the purpose of familiarizing himself with agriculture. On reaching again her native shore and spending a short time with her sister, she was sent to a young ladies’ boarding school at the town of St. Ives, Huntingdonshire. There under the direction of competent instructors she made commendable progress in her studies, not omitting the accomplishments and graces everywhere considered essential to finished intellectual training. The school she attended held its session in an old historic house erected by Oliver Cromwell in the days of the Commonwealth, and among her classmates were many young ladies from some of the best and most aristocratic families in the kingdom. Some of these companions subsequently gained distinction in various avenues of professional life, art and literature, and their mutual influence was of itself an education which subsequently bore rich fruitage in the social world.

Among her closest and most intimate school friends was a young lady from London by the name of Foster, whose mother was a leader in one of the select aristocratic social circles of the capital city and a lady of unusual mental endowments. Upon the invitation of the young lady Isabella spent one of her vacations in the Foster home, and she now recalls with pleasure the enjoyable time spent in the refined and elevating atmosphere of those well-bred people, visiting with them the most interesting places in the world’s metropolis and taking long trips throughout the surrounding country. These were indeed happy times, and now, when age bedims the eye and time sprinkles like sifted sand the frost of years upon head and brow, do they indeed appear like green spots in the field of memory. Shortly after returning to her studies she was attacked by a violent form of typhus fever, which fell disease broke out among the pupils, causing the death of many and leaving its mark for life upon others. At this juncture a kind-hearted physician living near obtained the consent of her guardian to remove her to his home, and once there the good man, with the assistance of his niece, a maiden lady, carefully and tenderly nursed her back to health. Shortly afterward she again found herself with her London friends, and while there formed the acquaintance of Mrs. Foster’s brother, the rector of a parish not far from the city, at whose hands she was the recipient of many kindnesses, which she has never forgotten. Later she accompanied the Fosters from London to Brighton, England’s most noted fashionable resort and watering place, where she spent many delightful days, meeting people from all parts of the United Kingdom and many from other countries of Europe. This contact with some of the most select and fashionable circles of the time came to an end after one winter’s duration, when she returned to her sister’s home for the purpose of meeting her brother, who, having attained his legal majority, was daily expected in England to claim the share of the father’s estate left him. This was in the year 1848, a date indelibly fixed in her memory by reason of an event which very materially affected the entire future course of her life. Being informed that the vessel in which her brother was supposed to have sailed was some days past due, she went several evenings to the railway station near her sister’s home for the purpose of meeting him when he should arrive from London. In the station one evening she formed the acquaintance of a young gentleman who was also awaiting the arrival of a brother who had been expected for some days. In the course of their conversation she casually remarked: “If your brother does not arrive to-morrow evening I shall not try to meet him,” little realizing that the subject of their conversation would tread life’s pathway hand in hand with her for nearly fifty years. The young man, Frederick S. C. Grayston, did arrive, and, calling upon her a few days later, a friendship was awakened which soon ripened into a love and affection that lost none of its genuineness or fervor during a wedded life of a half century’s duration.

On the 1st day of May, 1849, the marriage of Mr. Grayston and Isabella Custance was duly solemnized according to the impressive form of the Episcopal service, Rev. Gathercole, rector of the parish church, officiating. After a brief wedding trip to St. Ives and other places, the couple returned to Chatters and set up their first domestic establishment in a house which the groom had previously prepared for the reception of his bride. At that time Mr. Grayston was a practical chemist and a member of the London Pharmaceutical Society. He owned a drug store in the town of Chatters and was doing a fairly remunerative business, but by placing implicit confidence in one whom he looked upon as a friend, he was led into an unfortunate venture which caused him serious financial loss. He had long desired to enter the medical profession, and upon the urgent solicitation of Mrs. Grayston’s brother, who had arrived meantime, he was induced to dispose of his interests in England and seek a larger and, as afterward proved, a more remunerative field in the United States. In due time all necessary arrangements were made for their departure, and after one of the saddest farewells, which left her sister well nigh broken hearted, Mrs. Grayston once more started for the far-off shores of the new world, the objective point this time being the wilds of northern Indiana, where her brother had already secured a home and was living the life of a farmer. At Liverpool Mr. and Mrs. Grayston shipped aboard the Mediator, bound for New York, but they were not permitted to reach the desired haven by reason of a severe storm which blew the vessel aground on the rugged coast of Wexford, Ireland. Indeed, from the time of starting across the channel the winds blew a perfect gale, and by the time the Irish coast was sighted the ship was in a deplorable condition and in danger of going to the bottom every moment. And now for the third time our little heroine experienced all the horros (sic) of shipwreck, and to maek (sic) matters worse her health had been such as to confine her to her cabin ever since taking passage. Her condition while crossing the channel was so serious as to require constant attention from her husband and a number of kindly disposed ladies, and now with a perfect hurricane blowing, billows running mountain high and the ship groaning and striking on the rocks, and threatening every minute to go to pieces and engulf passengers and crew, her situation can better be imagined than described. Fortunately for the imperiled passengers, a number of wreckers along the shore soon perceived their dangerous situation, and it was not long until several life boats were pushing through the breakers toward the doomed vessel. Half dressed and unable to help herself, Mrs. Grayston was one of the first to be lifted out and put into a life boat, which, as soon as filled with women and children, started for the shore, the strong-limbed oarsmen little expecting to get through the waves and over the rocks without being swamped. But the kind Providence, which hitherto had attended her through so many dangers, did not desert her in this emergency, for, wading through the roaring surf, came a number of strong-armed, stout-hearted peasants, one of whom, taking Mrs. Grayston in his arms, said, “Never mind, darling, I’ll take ye to the shore;” and so he did, bearing his burden to a little hut and depositing the frail body on a pile of straw in one corner of the only room the domicile contained. In like manner were the remainder of the women and children landed, but the passengers saved little of their earthly possessions except what clothing they had on their bodies.

After being divested of her wet garments and forced to swallow a glass of strong Irish whisky, Mrs. Grayston’s body soon began to break out with an eruption which, in the end, proved to be varialoid or a mild form of small-pox, contracted no doubt at the place she left, as there was an epidemic of the disease soon after her departure. As soon as the people learned the true condition of affairs great excitement prevailed, several families leaving the place and others quarantining their homes in fear of the cantagion. (sic) A wealthy landlord, whose large mansion stood not far from the scene of the wreck, generously opened his doors to the unfortunates, many of whom found shelter under his hospitable roof until able to get away or until their friends, hearing of their misfortune, could come after them. Mr. Grayston was fortunate enough to secure a room in this house for his wife, and there she remained under the best of care until sufficiently recovered to make a trip by vehicle to Dublin. Securing a conveyance, Mr. and Mrs. Grayston drove through parts of the beautiful countries of Wicklow, Kilkenny and Queens to the Irish capital, thence by steamer to Liverpool, where the sad tiding of her sister’s death awaited her. The wreck caused them great loss, all of their baggage being washed overboard, together with many other articles, including jewelry and a number of keepsakes of no great intrinsic worth, but valuable by reason of association. They succeeded in saving their trunks, however, and some money, but considering their loss and the condition of Mrs. Grayston’s health it was deemed advisable to defer the trip to America until the following fall. The wreck occurred in the month of May, 1850.

Communicating with their friends in Brighton, they were invited thither, and after reaching the place Mr. Grayston found temporary employment as copyist in the office of a barrister. On the 12th day of May Mr. and Mrs. Grayston hailed the arrival of a fine baby boy, whom they named Boston, and who to-day is one of the distinguished physicians in a city noted for the high order of its medical talent. The following September the little family, undeterred by previous sufferings and disaster, again packed their effects, and, sailing from Southampton, finally reached port in New York after a long, stormy and in every respect unpleasant voyage.

After resting a couple of days they started westward for Indiana, little realizing the kind of country to which they were going or the character of the people inhabiting it. They had heard of the Wabash river and expected to find it covered with craft of all kinds, and as for the country, they were looking for populous cities and roadways teeming with traffic, instead of a dense wilderness broken at rare intervals by the cabins of a few pioneer settlers. From New York City they went up the beautiful Hudson to Albany, thence by cars to Buffalo, where they took a boat for Toledo. While crossing the lake a terrific storm arose, which for a time threatened destruction to the vessel, an old hulk, by the way, with engines badly out of repair and an appearance of general neglect from deck to keel. To be prepared for emergencies all of the passengers were required to put on life preservers, but fortunately the storm gradually subsided and the poor old craft went on its way as best it could until the city of Toledo was reached.

From Toledo to their destination at Huntington, the travelers made the trip by packet on the Wabash & Erie canal, and finally landed at what proved to be the most disappointing port their feet thus far had ever touched. En route, Mr. and Mrs. Grayston made enquiries as to the location of Mr. Custances’ farm, and being informed by a fellow traveler on the canal who knew that gentleman well, they decided, after remaining one night in the only hotel of which Huntington then could boast, to secure a vehicle of some description and drive to the residence of their relative the next morning, about five miles distant from the town. This drive in the only buggy the place afforded, over roads almost impassable, through forests just as nature created them, through mud hub deep at places, gave the young physician and his devoted wife their first glimpse of Indiana as it appeared fifty years ago.

Receiving many instructions as to the proper roads to take, they nevertheless became confused on the way, and, before reaching the brother’s house, drove several miles in another direction, expecting ever (sic) moment to see painted savages with tomahawks and scalping knives rush from the forest in pursuit, and looking for ferocious wild animals to leap from covert and tear them to pieces. After wandering thus for many hours the brother’s house was at last discovered, and it is needless to state that they were warmly and generously received.

To narrate in detail the many interesting experiences of Mrs. Grayston during the first few years in a country so radically different in every respect from her own, and to note the way in which she gradually became accustomed to the manners and customs of Hoosier life in the backwoods, the reader is kindly referred to the interesting autobiography mentioned in the introductory paragraph, a perusal of which would repay any one accorded such privilege. Reared and educated under the refining influence of the polite society of the old world, and naturally imbibing ideas from a social circle absolutely distinct from conditions such as she found in the sparsely settled region of northern Indiana, it is not at all surprising that she did not at once fall in with the new order of things or that she chafed at times because of inharmonious environment. It was perfectly natural for her to draw comparisons between the great city of London and the little canal town of Huntington, to the latter’s disadvantage, and no one can reasonably criticize her for placing in juxtaposition the educated, elegant and refined social circles of Southampton and Brighton with the unpolished, untaught, but withal large-hearted, open-handed pioneers that constituted all there was of society on the Wabash fifty years ago. Generously endowed by nature with good common sense, and with judgment and mental faculties trained by severe intellectual discipline, she accepted her changed condition with exceedingly good grace, and soon learned to appreciate true worth in whatever garb arrayed and to place a proper estimate on merit wherever and under whatever condition found. In due time she became accustomed to western ways without in the least compromising any of her early training, and found her social graces an effective means of breaking down an artificial reserve on the part of her neighbors, enabling her finally to win their friendship and love. At first it was the intention of Dr. and Mrs. Grayston to remain but a year or two at most in the United States and then return to the land of their nativity, better prepared financially and in many other ways for the duties which the future had in store for them. Their plans, however, were not carried out, and as the sequel will prove, it was probably for the best that circumstances prevented their fulfillment. In due time the Doctor opened an office, and, swinging his shingle to the breeze, announced himself in readiness to minister to the wants of suffering humanity. As to his success and the distinction he acquired among the most eminent men of his profession in the state of Indiana, the reader is referred to the review of his life which precedes this article. In all his noble endeavor to benefit his fellow men and establish a reputation, he was nobly assisted by his faithful, self-denying wife, who, throughout his long and distinguished career, proved, in the truest and most dignified sense of the term, a helpmeet. Taking up the burden of life where she found it under such peculiar circumstances, she nobly addressed herself to the duty in hand by conscientious devotion thereto carved out a destiny which has been the pride of her family and the admiration of a community which she has seen grow from a mere hamlet to one of the proudest cities of the commonwealth. She early became familliar (sic) with all the homely duties performed by good housewives when the country was new, such as making rag carpets, cutting and making garments for her children, curing meats, preserving fruits, knitting; indeed, there was nothing in the long category of housekeeping she could not do except weaving, spinning and milking cows. Amid the multifarious duties of home making, rearing children, looking after the interests of her husband and performing numerous kindly acts of benevolence and charity, she never once forgot her position as a refined lady, and always kept in touch with the great world of literature and thought. It was she who brought to Huntington the first piano ever seen in the town, and as she would sit of evenings before the instrument the windows and doors of her dwelling would frequently be filled with the faces of interested listeners, attracted by sweet melodies such as they had never before heard. She soon became a recognized leader in the social circles of the town, a position for which her early education and training eminently fitted her, and which through all the years since then she has never relinquished. One of the greatest dignities Heaven ever vouchsafed to womanhood is the privilege of becoming mothers of manly men and womenly women. In this respect the wife of Dr. Grayston has been richly blessed indeed. Her sons, the pride and staff of her declining years, have gained distinction in the professional world and are looking forward to careers of still greater promise and usefulness in the future. The hopes which fond and tender motherhood centered in the two bright and amiable daughters were destined never to be realized, as these fond treasures of the heart’s affection were removed from the family circle at a time when it appeared they least could be spared. To use her own language, “The elder daughter, Sarah, remained with us to brighten and bless our home for fifteen years; then, with scarcely a week’s sickness, died; * * * she was a good and beautiful Christian girl, beloved by all who knew her, and the loss was almost too much for me, and from which it was hard to rally. My younger daughter, Annie was only six years old at the time of Sarah’s death; she lived to almost fill her sister’s place, and grew more and more like her each year until reaching the age of thirteen, when she, too, was taken, and I was left without a daughter to comfort and help me in my declining years.” But her cup of sorrow was not yet full, the last great crushing blow coming a few years later, when the loving husband with whom she had traveled life’s narrow pathway for over a generation, the doting father, the distinguished physician, the scholarly, manly man was summoned from the scenes of his struggles and triumphs to a higher sphere, leaving her bereaved indeed. To attempt with dull, cold type to describe the sadness of the scene, to expose to the world the heart-ache and the long days of sorrow since the beloved form was laid to rest, is to trespass upon holy ground; so the writer forbears, and leaves her with her sorrows and her dead.

Mrs. Grayston was reared in the Episcopal faith, but finding the services of the American church so different from the grand old ritual of the church of England, she did not identify herself with that body after coming to America. After a period of religious indecision and unrest, she finally united with what is known as the Christian or Disciple church, and has since continued one of its most sincere and devout members. She is alive to all the good work of the congregation to which she belongs, and exemplifies by a life of faith the genuineness of the religion she professes.

Such in brief are the leading facts in the life of this remarkable woman; this mother of Israel, whose wholesome influence, distilled like the gentle dew from Heaven, will never be fully known or appreciated until the “Books are open” and every one receives the reward his thoughts and actions merit. She has lived wisely and well, her whole career being a grand, simple poem of duty faithfully and uncomplainingly done. Her eventful life has indeed been history, and her descendants will read it with a proud thrill such as visits the pilgrim while performing a religious duty at some sacred shrine. In the beautiful old home of culture and refinement, cheered by the presence of her manly sons and all that filial love can bring, sustained and soothed by an abiding faith in Him who causes all things to work together for the good of His children, she is passing her declining years, still active in the discharge of every duty and shedding her influence like a heavenly benediction upon the many who arise to call her blessed. During the last half century her life and the history of Huntington have been very closely interwoven; she has realized the wants of the people of her adopted city, and, with strong brain and free hand, has supplied the demand most generously and unsparingly; she has been prolific of good works, and the future awaits her with bounteous reward. And now with time’s autoraph (sic) indelibly stamped upon her brow, when the race is nearing its end and the afternoon of life wanes, to see this silver-haired womanly woman as she passes along toward the twilight and the journey’s end, receiving the love, reverence and respect of all, is a picture indeed that many loving hearts will wish may never fade.

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