Thursday, April 30, 2009

Aunt Louie Boyd's piano

Piano showroom ad from the Henry Piano Company, 1909

My great grandfather had five daughters and one son. His youngest daughter was my grandmother, who died before I was born. Another daughter was my Great-Aunt Snow, who was the closest thing to a grandmother I ever knew.

The daughter that made the greatest mark on the world was my Great-Aunt Hattie, who had things named after her that still are around today.

But there was another daughter who was blessed with talent, beauty, and brains, but whose mark on the world has faded. I want to bring back her memory.

My great-grandfather's third daughter Louie Boyd was born in 1881. I don't know why they named her that. But she was always called both names together, "Louie-Boyd."

Here she is with her sister Hattie, in front of their Houston home in 1896 or so, just before the family moved to Dallas.

Louie Boyd was a talented pianist, studying with prominent musicians. By the time she was twenty, she was teaching piano at Kidd-Key Conservatory, a music and fine arts school in Sherman, Texas.


The town of Sherman was known as the "Athens of Texas" because of the many institutions of higher learning located there. It was the home of North Texas Female College, supported by the NorthTexas Methodist Conference, and Austin College, a men's school, supported by the Presbyterian Church. Two other womens' schools were located in Sherman, affiliated with the Baptist Church and the Disciples of Christ church.

North Texas Female College's Music and Fine Arts Conservatory had been founded by Mrs. Lucy Ann Kidd-Key. In 1897 she recruited Finnish composer and pianist Harold von Mickwitz to be director of the music program.

Pencil sketch of Mickwitz from the 1931 yearbook of Austin College, Sherman, TX.

Maestro Mickwitz taught many Texas women, and gained a devoted following among Texas piano teachers, including Aunt Louie Boyd, who, later in life, was an active member of Dallas' Mickwitz Club. The club presented piano concerts honoring the Maestro, and Aunt Louie Boyd helped edit his memoirs. Louie Boyd served on the music faculty at Kidd-Key for eight years.


By 1907 Louie Boyd was back in Dallas, teaching piano students. The Dallas Morning News announced her recitals, where her students played pieces ranging from "The Little Story of a Mouse" and "The Elephant's Dance", to Mozart's "Concerto in D Minor." She had a studio in Dallas' Bush Temple of Music.

Louie Boyd, as a teacher of piano

Another Mickwitz protegee was an Abilene girl named Nettie Tillett. In 1912, she performed in Dallas with other Mickwitz students. She was a talented musician and by 1914 she was on the Music faculty at Simmons College in her home town.

Nettie's father was a State Senator, lawyer, and Judge. Her mother was an interesting person, as documents show she was enrolled as an Art student at Simmons College while in her 40's. In 1918 Nettie's mother died - her death certificate lists the cause as "apoplexy", so it must have been a sudden death and a terrible shock to her family.

Were Nettie and Louie Boyd friends? They were only seven years apart. Or had Louie Boyd, as a member of Mickwitz's faculty, taught Nettie? Did they socialize or meet one another's families?

In any case, in 1920, Nettie's father, the recently widowed Judge Tillett, married my Great-Aunt Louie Boyd. He was twenty years her senior. She was only seven years older than his daughter Nettie, and only four years older than his oldest son, Smith.

Louie Boyd, undated hand-colored photo

She and the Judge lived in Abilene. The family home on Butternut Street was given over to the Judge's son, Junior, but the newlyweds lived just a few doors down, in a newly built brick house.

The Judge was an outspoken man, writing letters to the Dallas newspapers on subjects ranging from politics to religion. The couple hosted dinners at their home to entertain the Judge's distinguished colleagues. Louie Boyd is included in the guest list at a 1927 gala luncheon, where the wealth brought to the community by the oil boom was gaudily celebrated. Table decor included miniature oil derricks, and the color scheme reflected the symbolism of the bounty of oil - with florals of golden jonquils, and a signature cocktail called "Liquid Gold" served in orange shells with be-ribboned straws.

It's easy to wonder about the family dynamic. Did the Judge's children welcome their new stepmother or see her as a gold-digger? As the new, socially active wife of a distinguished man, did Louie Boyd like the glamor and glitz? Did she enjoy entertaining politicians twenty years older than she, or did she feel out of place? As a Dallas girl, did she find Abilene a small-town back-water, or was the Judge's status a step up for her?

Meanwhile, Nettie's career continued, and she became the director of the Fort Worth Conservatory of Music, part of Texas Christian University. Did Louie Boyd envy her young friend, and miss the world of music she'd given up? In 1929, the brilliant young pianist Bomar Cramer came to Abilene to present a concert, and Louie Boyd was interviewed by the local paper. She'd known him as a young student during her years at Kidd-Key, and is quoted praising his talent. You can sense a wistful tinge of envy, as the article quotes recent New York and Chicago rave reviews, while Louie Boyd remembers his young days at Kidd-Key.

In March of 1930, Judge Tillett had a heart attack and died. He was 69 years old, and Louie Boyd was 49.

My mother has always hinted, darkly, that there may be something more sinister to the Judge's passing. As she recalls the tales, the Judge may have been overextended financially, and the crash of the market drove him to despair. One clue that supports this is a classified ad that appeared in the Abilene paper in 1927 where "Mrs. Tillett" seeks a gentlemen boarder for a room with a private entrance in her new brick home - could the couple have been experiencing financial troubles? Did the Judge take matters into his own hands? My mother cites the fact that the news coverage of his death is minimal, which is odd considering his celebrated service to the community during his life.

The 1930 census, taken only a month after the Judge's death, shows Louie Boyd living in her home with two gentlemen roomers and three servants. Her profession is listed as "Piano Teacher." In August, a news article announces her opening of her piano studio.

The Judge's death must have left her strapped financially, if she needed to earn her living again. Or did she return to teaching for the love of music?

It was the beginning of the Depression, and times were tough for everyone. Louie Boyd tried to make a go of it in Abilene, but by 1934 she'd had enough. She returned to Dallas, moved back into the family home on Swiss Avenue with her sisters Hattie and Snow, and announced the opening of her Dallas piano studio.

For the next fifteen years, Louie Boyd taught piano, participated in Dallas musical activities, and taught at the Dallas-based Southwestern Conservatory of Fine Arts.

She and other ladies of the Mickwitz Club were featured in the news for organizing a concert to honor their mentor. Here she is, on the left. Don't they look like the Pick-a-little-Talk-a-little ladies?

Like her husband, she wrote many letters to the editor on subjects ranging from politics to music to culture, and she was outspoken. In 1941 she wrote to take issue with politician Pappy O'Daniel's use of popular music for his campaign rallies.

In 1951, she moved to Houston along with my grandmother. Her health was poor, and she had taken time off from teaching. The next few years would be difficult. At some point during this time, finances forced Louie Boyd to sell her piano. In a 1954 letter, her sister Snow talks about how "heartbreaking" it had been, how it "liked to have killed her."

Although Aunt Louie Boyd sent me birthday cards and Christmas checks, I only met her in person one time. In the 1960s, my family visited her and Aunt Snow in Houston. By this time, Louie Boyd was in her eighties, and in poor health. I remember that her hands were crippled and twisted with arthritis. It must have been particularly hard for her not to be able to use her hands to make music. Only one old and blurry photo remains of her at from that time.

When she died, at the age of 85 in 1966, her sister Snow moved into a residence hotel. She shipped Louie Boyd's belongings up to Illinois, where my Mom let me help unpack them.

Today, I have the Haviland china service and the silver flatware mongrammed with the Tillett "T", that Aunt Louie Boyd and her husband used to entertain guests in their Abilene home. I have her medallion, the rather awful memento to her father's memory.

Announcements for Louie Boyd's students' piano recitals appeared in the Dallas Morning News, starting in 1907 and through1949. That's 42 years of little girls playing "The Happy Farmer" and "Spring Song" - plus the occasional brilliant student who would go on to outshine the teacher. Louie Boyd must have known how to coax simple tunes from clumsy fingers, and to recognize talent when she encountered it.

I studied piano myself as a young girl. And, frankly, I was terrible. I hated practicing, and I was a sullen student, mediocre at best. Now I wonder how much better I could have been if I'd had a teacher like my Aunt Louie Boyd, a woman who lived her life for her music.

9 comments:

Shey said...

Wow! This is a very fascinating story! It's also heartbreaking when she had to sell her piano at the end, & also having arthritis.

But reading her story looks like she was a very strong woman & had lived a full life.

Thanks for sharing.

San Diego Momma said...

That is wonderful. I love these bits of history and tracing our past.

Thanks for sharing these stories. They're always so absorbing and readable.

KBeau said...

You have a fascinating family. I just love family history.

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

another terrific tale! I love reading the fascinating story of your ancestors!

mo.stoneskin said...

Fascinating as usual, but most fascinating of all is Louie Boyd's hair piece!

Pamela said...

I have to say WOW, too. Love those history posts - - especially when we dig stuff up about family.

The first photo makes their arms look very long. I wonder if some of those old photos were out of kilter.

Martha said...

What a facinating story!
Thanks for stopping by to visit this week.

dennisthemennis.co.uk said...

what a wonderful story!

Tuure said...

Paul Harald von Mickwitz was my granny's great-uncle :)