Monday, May 01, 2006

Family Album: Britiannia Bray Van Dolah

Britannia Bray Van Dolah My great-great maternal grandmother, Britannia Bray Van Dolah, was born in 1841 in Spencer County, Indiana. In 1853, her father moved to McLean County, Illinois, and proceeded to outlive three wives. Besides farming 160 acres in Martin Township, he taught in a country school.

In 1864, Britannia married Lexington livery and live stock businessman David Hyatt Van Dolah. He supposedly (according to family tradition) had recently paid his brother $300 to fight for him in the Civil War. Britannia and D.H. became doting parents of two sons: James Walter (1865-1936) and Lewis Sheridan "Tad" (1867-1919).

In 1868, D.H., Ike Harness and others founded a bank in Lexington (Harness, Vandolah & Company). As a banker, Van Dolah was a shrewd businessman and amassed a fortune buying and selling land both in Illinois and Missouri. A one point he was said to have owned 2,000 acres in McLean County.

D.H. Van Dolah & Tad From 1878 to 1889, Van Dolah imported French Percheron and Norman draft horses, going to Europe seven times (his wife two). In the picture at left, D.H. is the one with the long beard, while his son Tad lies rakishly at his feet.

According to family tradition, during one such trip D.H. brought back three large diamonds hidden in feed sacks. (Each of my siblings and I inherited one of the diamonds.) It is told that another gift brought from Europe was a beautiful large music box which plays about 8 tunes. The box was a gift for one D.H.'s tellers, Hop (William Hopkins) Kennedy, who had become son James' father-in-law in 1887. (I still own the music box.)

Having traveled abroad, D.H. preferred French crepes for breakfast. One morning "Sis" (as D.H. called her) served him regular pancakes. He stormed out of the house and got in the buggy and began riding around in a circle feeding the pancakes to the pigs. "He was a Tartar," laughed my grandmother, telling the story.

In France around 1897, Britannia admired the French chateau and decided she wanted her husband to build her one. During 1897-1898, the new house--known in Lexington as the "Castle"--was built. Located just west of Lexington the house was the work of Pontiac contractor C. W. Mathewison. Estimates placed the cost of the house between $35,000. and $80,000. Payrolls showed workers earned from 15 to 25 cents per hour. Scaffolds were not permitted to go up outside the house, so they were only used inside the structure.

The 30 room structure had a double-wall constructed of Indiana limestone, Maine granite and Missouri buff brick. The roof was slate.

The house consisted of four stories, complete with a circular oak stairway leading up to the fourth floor grand ballroom. The entrance hall chandelier was brass and custard glass.

According to a news article, "English flocked wallpaper and a pecky cypress ceiling decorate the south drawing room. Special supports were installed for the 300-pound chandelier from a French chateau." The dining room had a Belgian chandelier.

The castle tower contained two round rooms, one used as a study. The second room was a bedroom.

The house was said to have one of the first working elevators in McLean County.

In January 1903 at aged 61, D. H. Van Dolah died of a heart attack.

Britannia on an alligatorBritannia outlived her husband by 27 years, remaining the dominant matriarch of the family throughout. She traveled yearly, but was plagued with ill health the last few years of her life. At right she can be seen on one of her winter trips to Florida around 1912. She sits astride a stuffed alligator. To her right is Ella Kennedy Van Dolah, her son James' wife.

Britannia was 89 at the time of her death in 1930. Said her obituary in 1930:

During the days of her robust health she was a leader in the religious, educational and social affairs of Lexington. She was a member of the Christian Church, the Order of the Eastern Stars and a charter member of the Lexington Woman's Club.

The Van Dolahs are buried in a family section of the Lexington Cemetery (originally known as the Porteus Cemetery). Standing at Britannia's tombstone you can see the house she had her husband build up on a hill to the south-east.

Colorized tintype of Britannia Bray Vandolah, ca. 1868 © 2006 David Claudon. "Castle" picture from Lexington Unit Journal.

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