Maggie Fox seems to have been many things for many different people. She also seems to have been called different things at different times. She was a wife and mother of nine children. They lovingly called her Fat Mama.
From the way I understand it, she was quite unhappy and severe on certain issues close to her experience; race in particular. Born to a biracial mother and a white father from a prominent Kentucky family around 1870, she was remembered less lovingly by some of her darker complexioned neighbors. Farther south, she would have had the nebulous distinction of being classified as a quadroon.
Her humble beginnings are currently shrouded in mystery, somewhat lost in the distant past. I sense she would have preferred it that way.
I also strongly suspect that Maggie Fox was rather fastidious and quite the quirk about home maintenance, a trait that has been passed down through the generations. Two of her daughters, Anna and Olwen, were meticulous women in their own right - especially about their homes. So were several of her granddaughters, Martha and Esther in particular. It's probable that they picked it up by influence. As one of Maggie's many great-grandchildren, I may have picked it up through osmosis.
Employed to cook and clean in the homes of some of the wealthiest families in Cincinnati, particularly for James Norris Gamble, son of the co-founder of Proctor and Gamble, Maggie would assuredly have had to bring her A-game. She was also self-employed as a seamstress, temporarily owning her own shop, but she mostly worked out of her own modest but tastefully decorated home in Newport, Ky. These people may have been her patrons, but at home she was Fat Mama, and there she gave as much to her own as she gave to others.
When she married my great-grandfather Cato Fox, in 1886, she was known as Willina Shropshire. I have reason to believe she was also called Lina during these early years. She was thirteen years old, married to a man born in slavery who was pushing thirty years old. I do not know the particulars of this marriage nor the dynamics of how they came together, but it is
likely that they met through her uncle, Mitchell Ingguls, who boarded
with the Fox family as early as 1870. Documentation says Ingguls was
her uncle but family lore says he was her brother. It could be that she was always called Maggie, too? That's what we call my mother, Margaret, a granddaughter named after her. After all, Maggie is short for Margaret, but there is no early documentation before 1900 citing that name. It isn't until around 1920 that the name Margaret appears in the family records. Such is part of her enigma.
The marriage to Cato is rumored to have been full of strife and not a very happy one, and tales of their domestic woes have been passed down in the family. Mitchell Ingguls eventually married Cato's sister, Ellen, and thus began generations of double-cousins and connections that last until this day. At the dawn of the new century, they all packed up and moved to the Northern Kentucky-Greater Cincinnati area with hopes for better opportunities and a more modern lifestyle. Cato wasn't so successful. The Newport steel mills weren't hiring any black men at the time, and certainly not any his age and with nothing but farm (and card shark) skills to their credit. On the other hand, Maggie, looking white and armed with certain domestic talents, an entrepreneurial spirit, and still attractive in mid-age, was better able to get in where she fit in. I'm sure she was proud of herself when she snagged an honorable mention in Wendell P. Dabney's eponymous Cincinnati's Colored Citizen's (1926) in Section IX under the heading, Prominent Property Owners.
James Norris Gamble was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1836, and was the firstborn son of nine children to James and Elizabeth Norris Gamble. He grew up to play a pivotal role as a chemist in his father and uncle's business, the consumer-products empire known as the Proctor & Gamble Company. It is James Norris Gamble who is credited with the discovery of one of their most successful products - Ivory Soap. Ivory, a less expensive, mild bar soap similar to imported Castile soap, was developed by accident when an employee left one of the soapmaking machines churning for too long. Too much air entered into the process and the mixture was filled with tiny bubbles. As a result, the finished batch floated and the novelty was a big hit with the public. I don't know if that employee received any compensation, but James Norris Gamble was able to take his father's company to higher heights of growth and expansion due to an accidental discovery that he may or may not have been responsible for.
Gamble married Margaret Penrose Gamble and established his family at Ratonagh, the family mansion at 2918 Werk Rd., in the Westwood area of Cincinnati, and there he lived until his death at the age of 95 in 1932. I do not know when Gamble (and perhaps his wife) crossed paths with Maggie Fox. I do know that at some point in the early Teens, she went to work for him, often traveling with the family during their summer month vacations. At this point, it should be noted that Maggie also worked for the "Potter-Orr" family, who were owners of Potter's Shoes in downtown Cincinnati. My grandfather, and some of the other younger siblings were able to travel with her during these times and were exposed to more than most other ordinary black kids of that time. Some of the places I've heard about were Adirondak Mountain locations and areas in Michigan. I think because they were so fair complexioned, they may have been less conspicuous.
I first heard of their connection back in the 1980's, when I was calling my great-aunts with questions about our family history. Sometimes my questions were answered and sometimes they weren't! My aunt Olwen lived with her older sister Annie, and it was she who always answered the phone, but it was Annie I most wanted to talk to as answers were more forthcoming from her. On one visit, I remember Annie telling me that her mother was named Lina - a statement that I found most baffling because we all only knew her as Maggie. Regardless, it was also around this time that Olwen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and her converstion began to ramble. At that time, I did not understand the symptoms. One particular day I called and she seemed to comprehend what I was saying yet she did not. She seemed lost in time but I could tell that she was recalling some event from long ago, but I did not have the presence of mind to pursue it or write it down. She spoke of being at a lake, having fun with her mother and brothers and often mentioned a "Mr. Gamby."
She mentioned him so much that I finally asked WHO is this Mr. Gamby? "You know the man who made the soap" she replied. "You mean Gamble of Proctor and Gamble" I asked incredulously. "Yes!", she stated matter-of-factly. It was the one rare occasion that I did not take many notes but I never forgot the exchange. For verification, I recently called my cousin Myrna, Olwen's daughter, to see if she had ever heard any such stories and she filled in a few missing pieces and confirmed her mother's story.
James Norris Gamble's adopted daughter, Olivia, never married and lived in the house all of her life, keeping it intact as something of a shrine for her father. Her nephew, Louis Nippert, maintained the home until his death in 1992. It then fell into the hands of his widow, philanthropist Louise Nippert, who at the age of 99, turned the house over to the Greenacres Foundation in 2009. It was during this same year that word began to spread about the noticeable deterioration of the house. Some months later, the owners applied for a demolition license. The Cincinnati Preservation Association, and members of the Westwood Historical Society intervened and after numerous public protests, lawsuits, hearings, city council and neighborhood meetings, a full-scale battle ensued to save and restore the property.
Ratonaugh is a High Victorian Italianate villa, parts of which are believed to have originally been constructed in the 1830's. When James Norris and Margaret Penrose Gamble purchased the house, they added to it and made significant alterations after 1875. The house is rich in detailing, including porches, roof brackets and a mansard-roofed tower. The still beautiful wooded setting evokes the character of the original estate when Westwood was still a rural village. But the home has sat vacant for five decades.
One of the most spectacular interior features of the Gamble home is the elaborate cast-iron stove, manufactured around 1895, and installed by James Norris Gamble in the original kitchen hearth. Is this the stove that Maggie Fox used?
Later that same year, Greenacres workers removed most or all of the contents of the house. As of 2010, Greenacres was still determined to destroy the house, estimating the cost of restoration at $1.3 million to $3 million. City estimates place that figure significantly lower at around $350,000. That year, Greenacres' tax return listed its total assets at $277 million. As of this year, historians and supporters are still rooting and working to save the house. I'm just going to assume that Maggie Fox (and maybe her children) spent at least some time at the Gamble family home during its heyday in Westwood.
Perhaps it's a little misleading to make reference to Maggie Fox at home since I haven't talked much about that or provided any photographs. The information is just not there and if there are any photos of Maggie at home, I haven't seen them. My mother, Maggie, grew up in the older woman's house and recalls that she had well-appointed furniture behind a glass parlor door that no one but company was allowed to go in. There are only a handful of photos of Maggie in existence. The earlier photos often reveal a woman with just a hint of a smile. Later photos (of which there are more of) depict an older, taut-faced, very sad and severe looking woman. Maggie Fox died in 1935. Her viewing and funeral were held at home.
A note on the photographs: Based on the clothing, the lead photo of Maggie Fox that I used for this blog post is approximately from around 1910. The second one dates around 1896, and shows a younger, but still hard-working woman who should be about 26 years old. The image of James Norris Gamble as a young man should date around the mid-to-late 19th century. The black and white photo of Ratonaugh is from the early 1930's. The furnished color photos of the house in its better days are from 1990. The images of the house dismantled are from 2010.
Another interesting tidbit: I was once told by another older cousin, Delores Fox Moorhead, that her aunt Geraldine (also Maggie's granddaughter) temporarily worked as a child nursemaid of sorts for the Tafts, the wealthy, political family from Cincinnati. I haven't been able to verify it, but if true, I have no doubt that it was due to Maggie's connections. There is also the suggestion that these connections allowed Geraldine to become the first family member to go to college and study nursing at Tuskegee University during the early 1930's.