Groundbreaking artist/activist Candace Wheeler got her start in the Catskills

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She has been proclaimed the “mother of interior design” and footnoted by history as the “high priestess of the Aesthetic movement.” Born in the shadow of the Catskills in 1827, Candace Wheeler would go on to achieve a rare position for a woman in 19th-century America: success in her own right. It was a success that had its origins in a small rural farmhouse in Delhi, where the foundational skills and moral character that would underscore her professional life were shaped. And yet, it was a success that would not begin to unveil itself until more than half her life had passed, a family had been raised and the door had been opened to the world of art through a series of personal relationships that her possibilities as a designer and her desire to improve the lives of women through economic opportunity.

Firm in the belief that economic independence for women was equal to if not more important than political independence, Wheeler, at the age of 50, would turn her attention to offering the women of her day a means by which the creative and domestic arts – and the skills that crafted them – could be directed towards profitable ends. So it was, in 1877, that the Society of Decorative Artists took form. A year later, the New York Exchange for Women’s Work would follow. Reaching back to the lessons of her childhood, Wheeler would labor diligently for the economic liberation of women by turning both the artistic and domestic skills that they possessed into viable commodities.

Through the Society of Decorative Arts, she sought to create “profitable industries among women who possess artistic talent, and to furnish a standard of excellence and a market for their work.” The Women’s Exchange dedicated itself to an even-broader purpose. Inclusive of all women, the Exchange operated on the principle of encouraging women to sell products that they could produce in the home, from pies to linens. In a post-Civil War America, where a large number of women had lost their husbands or fathers and the economic support upon which they traditionally relied, self-sufficiency became a critical necessity.

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As Wheeler remembered, “Women of all classes had always been dependent upon the wage-earning capacity of men, and although the strict observance of the custom had become inconvenient and did not fit the times, the sentiment of it remained. But the time was ripe for a change. It was still unwritten law that women should not be wage-earners or salary beneficiaries, but necessity was stronger than the law. In those early days I found myself constantly devising ways of help in individual dilemmas, the disposing of small pictures, embroidery and handwork of various sorts for the benefit of friends or friends of friends who were cramped by untoward circumstances.”

Candace Wheeler was the third of eight children born to Abner and Lucy Thurber. Her father, known as Deacon Thurber, was an idealist and religious enthusiast in the Puritan tradition who once desired a future as a missionary for his daughter. Though certainly a woman of scripture, Candace’s mother met the idealism of her husband with a more practical outlook. Described by Candace as a “domestic manufacturer,” theirs was a home that did not want for food, clothing or the effort required to support such a large family in the heart of the rural Catskills. And “manufacture” they did: candlemaking, tapping and producing maple syrup, smoking and curing meat, pickling, farming and storing vegetables such as turnips, potatoes, carrots and cabbage and, with an early glimpse at Candace’s future, needlework and the “spinning and weaving of cloth for the winter warmth of all of us.”

Life in the Thurber home, as it stood across the river from the village of Delhi, was “different” from many families in the early-to-mid-19th century. Wheeler herself described the Thurber household as being “a hundred years behind the times,” living, as she believed they did, in a manner more befitting her New England ancestors of the 18th century. Reading material, for example, was selected and proscribed by her father, as dictated by his work and his faith. As a result, the Bible was, as Wheeler labeled it, their “literary bread.”

Theirs was a busy and well-visited home, as missionaries were a constant and consistent presence. It was also a home very much in sympathy with the Abolitionist movement – so much so that the use of cotton was forbidden in any of the family’s clothing. To that end, other visitors to their home were of the more secretive sort, as the Wheeler barn was occasionally used as a stop by an escaped slave making his way north. As Wheeler remembered, she would see someone “first in the morning, having presumably arrived in the night. After breakfast and morning prayers he was sequestered in the haymow during the day, and disappeared during the night.” Abolitionism, not being the most popular of causes within the community, would serve as a point of separation for a young Candace, recalling later, “that when the children of the school or neighborhood felt I was particularly in want of being ‘taken down,’ a favorite method of it was to call me the ‘nigger queen.’”

As she grew older, despite having been instilled at an early age with the foundational qualities of hard work, self-sufficiency and respect for individual dignity, the idea of living life as an independent woman in the mid-1800s remained a distant and foreign concept. Writing later in life, Wheeler would note, “In the life of the country town where I grew up there were no girls of fortune and none who were self-supporting. There were one or two elderly single women who ‘helped themselves’ by school teaching or giving inadequate lessons upon the piano, and those two pursuits were the only ones open to unmarried women. The career of a powerful and competent single woman, as we know it today, was an unheralded dream.”

Ironically, the future for Candace Thurber would arrive in the form of an introduction to Thomas Wheeler. Within a year of a first meeting arranged by friends as she visited New York, they were married. The college-educated Wheeler, described by his wife as both a “clever” and “progressive” man, would, in the years ahead, lend eager support to his wife’s endeavors as his success as a merchant with ties to academia and the arts opened new avenues along which his ardent bride would travel. In reflecting on her marriage and the future that they would share, Wheeler likened their transforming partnership to “stepping over a century, leaving behind me the habits and thoughts of early Puritan life and coming into a new world of advanced thought and intellectual freedom.”

Over the course of the next three decades, as she devoted her time to raising the couple’s four children, Wheeler would begin to immerse herself in the arts. Surrounded and encouraged by an ever-increasing circle of friends that included such artists as Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford and Jervis McEntee, Wheeler began to understand the intimate relationship between artist and art. “I got great help from all these friendly artists, and as I had always drawn flowers enthusiastically and successfully, and loved the intricacies and mysteries of color, I found myself before too long an amateur flower-painter, with pictures accepted and even sold at Academy exhibitions.”

Still, it was not until middle age approached that Wheeler began to reassemble her life and the direction in which her remaining years would follow. At the age of 49, after the death of her oldest daughter, Cannie, from Bright’s disease, Wheeler would draw upon both the moral and practical lessons of her childhood to charter a new direction – not only for herself but also for women whose circumstances, talent and skills called out for opportunity. Where most might have been content to settle for what life had provided, Wheeler forged on, noting, as she reflected on the death of her daughter, that the experience had changed her “whole attitude toward life and taught me its duties, not only to those I loved, but to all who needed help and comfort.” To those ends, the Society of Decorative Arts, the Women’s Exchange and a career that challenged the status quo would follow.

Out of her work and associations developed through both her personal life and those made through the Society and the Exchange, Wheeler embarked on a full life of developing as an artist, honing her skills as an interior designer and venturing into various enterprises within the decorative arts. In 1879 she entered into a partnership with Louis Comfort Tiffany to form the textile firm Associated Artists. Included among their many design projects were Mark Twain’s Hartford, Connecticut home, the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and, during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur, the White House.

In 1883, Wheeler would go on to inaugurate her own textile design business, concentrating on authentic American designs. Successfully negotiating her way through a world unaccustomed to dealing with a professional woman, Wheeler succeeded in creating designs for textile manufactures across the US, while at the same time opening doors for other women to follow in a field previously dominated by men. Throughout the course of her remaining years, Wheeler would author numerous books on interior design, needlework and gardening and, in 1893, her pioneering work was honored with the prestigious appointment as director and supervisor for the interior decorations of the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair.

It was also in the spring of 1883, according to Wheeler’s autobiography, that she and her brother Frank disembarked from a train in Phoenicia and set out to look for a hill “from the top of which there would be a great outlook” and where they could “build a camp or cabin and live the wild life for a little space.” Eventually, arriving at what was called “the Crossroads” in Tannersville, they looked out at an expanse where “Round Top and High Peak sloped away from each other…with a far-off misty view of miles of the Hudson Valley” and knew that they were home. It would be called Onteora, and its purpose was a decidedly simple one: to “satisfy the instinct of happiness.”

Soon rustic cottages began to rise, with Pennyroyal and Lotus Land being the first. Other buildings, including more cottages, an inn, a church and a library, would follow as an expanding circle of friends, artists and writers began to find their way to the remote mountainside. In addition to summer visits by Mark Twain and the occasional appearance of John Burroughs, Onteora residents included, at one time or another, painters Carroll Beckwith and Jervis McEntee, Columbia professor Brander Matthews, editor Richard Gilder and the president of the National Academy of Design, John Alexander.

Women were also an equal and vital part of life at Onteora. Among those who became closely associated with the mountaintop setting was Mary Mapes Dodge, who built her cottage Yarrow in 1888. Dodge, the editor of the then-popular children’s magazine St. Nicholas, is today best-remembered for her work Hans Brinker: or the Silver Skates. Elizabeth Custer, widow of general George Armstrong Custer, who had turned to writing books of Western motif following the general’s “untimely” death, arrived in 1894. And, in 1900, Maude Adams, already established as one of America’s premier actors, having won acclaim for her performance of Peter Pan, also made her way to Wheeler’s “hill top.”

In light of Candace Wheeler’s life and the independent course that she had chartered, it should be no surprise that the women who found their way to Onteora were of like mind and strengths. Independent in their work, they drew upon their talents to sustain themselves and their lives through what their minds and hands crafted. Wheeler’s gathering of artists, writers and intellectuals within the rustic beauty of the mountains that she loved was, as she would offer in her autobiography, “the outcome of all I had learned and experienced during the first half of my life.”

When she died in 1923 at the age of 96 (having moved to Georgia during her final years), Wheeler had begun to see the fruits of her earlier labors. Women had obtained the right to vote and, more importantly to Wheeler, were beginning to exert an increasing influence outside the home. While her own star had faded as she moved into the silence of old age, the earlier path that she had forged had begun to widen as more and more footsteps followed.

As a child in Delhi, a young Candace would worry about what was to become of her. Little did she realize at the time (little do we all realize) that at the center of those younger years lay the learning and understanding that she would take into adulthood: the tools by which she would be able to direct the course of future days. For out of that small rural home, from all “the manufactures that were accomplished there” and the “moral and mental standards” that were established there, came a life that would create a difference – a difference that would take on the world quite nicely.

Visit the Mountain Top Arboretum (Route 23C and Maude Adams Road in Tannersville), which displays a range of native and exotic trees and shrubs on 179 acres of meadows, wetlands and forest connected by numerous trails and paths (https://mtarboretum.org). While the homes at Onteora remain in private hands, the Mountain Top Historical Society (Route 23A in Haines Falls) will offer “Trails, Tales and Tea,” a walking tour of Onteora Park homes, on June 20. In addition to the tour, the day will also include the presentation, “Celebrating Women of the Mountain Top,” followed by a tea at the Washington Irving Inn. For more on events from the Mountain Top Historical Society, go to www.mths.org.

All quotes appearing in this article are taken from Candace Wheeler’s autobiography, Yesterdays in a Busy Life, originally published by Harper & Brothers (New York & London), 1918.

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