You probably know the stories of important figures in Oil Region history. I’m sure you could even name a handful or more. Let’s try: Edwin Drake, Jonathan Titus, James Curtis McKinney, E.O. Emerson, Joseph Chase, William Scheide, John Mather, John Fertig – the list goes on and on! But, what is missing from that list? How about the other half of the population?
Other than the famous Ida Tarbell, can you name a single woman of importance in Oil Region history? If your answer is no, I assure you it is not because there weren’t any! Today I want to highlight two remarkable women whose extraordinary lives and accomplishments in the Oil Region should be remembered and lauded.
ELIZA RIDGWAY NASON
Eliza Ridgway Nason was born Eliza Ridgway on December 16, 1855 in what is now Hydetown, Pennsylvania. Ridgway was a true daughter of the Oil Region as she could trace her ancestors back to the founders of both Titusville and Hydetown. Her mother, Eliza Hyde Ridgway, was the daughter of Elijah Hyde who helped transform Oil Creek Borough into Hydetown and for whom the borough was named. Eliza’s father, Samuel E. Ridgway, Sr., was the son of Charles Ridgway and Frances Titus Ridgway. Frances Titus Ridgway was the daughter of Peter Titus, the first settler of Oil Creek Borough, and the sister of Jonathan Titus, the settler and founder of Titusville. The Titus, Hyde, and Ridgway families combined early in Oil Region history, and Eliza Ridgway Nason was the product of that union.
Eliza was born the fourth of Samuel and Eliza’s eight children. Her siblings included Frances, Diadema (“Demma”), Ida, Samuel E. Jr., Willis, Charles, and Maria (“Mallie”). Fortunately in her case, a large family did not preclude Eliza from attending college. After her local primary and secondary education, she enrolled at Buchtel College in Ohio (now the University of Akron). After graduation, she earned a living as a public school teacher in Hydetown, Centerville, and Tryonville for meany years. In 1893 at the age of thirty-eight, Eliza married Sherman E. Nason. Together they had four children, two of whom died in infancy (Dorothy and William). Their surviving children were Vivian and Linna Nason.
Even though Eliza Ridgway Nason would not live to see the day that American women were permitted to cast a vote at the polls, she was an indomitable spirit of great accomplishment and power. Her father, Samuel E. Ridgway, Sr., was the proprietor of the Ridgway Sanitarium in Hydetown, as well as the creator of the famous Ridgway Acme Liniment. Both businesses were of national fame and drew a great following in the region. Before her father’s death in 1901, Eliza was in charge of running both the Sanitarium and the Acme Liniment business. A position of this height is particularly of note since Eliza was a woman with three brothers in her family; yet, she was still the one chosen to manage the family businesses.
Not only was she in charge of the sanitarium and liniment, but she also oversaw the building of the Union Church in Hydetown and was widely respected by her contemporaries. Only six weeks after the death of her husband, Eliza Ridgway Nason died on January 15, 1919 in Hydetown at the age of sixty-three. She is buried in Ridgway Cemetery in Hydetown.
Eliza and Sherman’s daughters went on to have their own lives and married into the Colbert and Futrell families. Both lived long into their later years, Linna Nason Colbert to age ninety-five and Vivan Nason Futrell to age eighty-five. Many people who still live in the Oil Region today can trace their ancestries back to the amazing Eliza Ridgway Nason and her family. If your last name is Ridgway, Nason, Titus, Colbert, Futrell, Davis, Gloyd, or Aikin you may be a relative!
LAURA CLARISSA DOWD DRAKE
A second remarkable woman everyone should know about is Laura Clarissa Dowd Drake. Though she was born in Madison, Connecticut on June 3, 1835, Laura Dowd Drake’s life has an important place in the history of our region.
One of three daughters of Alfred and Harriet Scranton Dowd, Laura grew up in New England. At the age of twenty-two in 1857 she married a widower sixteen years her senior who had a seven-year-old son – one Edwin Laurentine Drake. Before Laura and Edwin’s marriage, Edwin Drake was married to Philena Adams Drake. The couple lost two children at birth before having George in 1850. Wanting to expand their family but chased by sorrow, Philena gave birth to a stillborn baby girl in 1854 and Philena herself died in childbirth. Heartbroken from this whirlwind of tragic events, Edwin luckily met Laura Dowd soon after and the couple began a new life together.
Shortly after their marriage, the newlyweds moved to Pennsylvania. The rest of that story should be well-known to you. Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in August 1859 and the family amassed a small fortune due to his stroke of luck. However, what gets lost in the shuffle of Edwin Drake’s famous story is the life of his wife, another indomitable Oil Region spirit.
During this time, the Drake family produced three children: Alfred Lee, Charles Henry, and Mary Laura. In addition to caring for her biological children, Laura also became mother to George. Shortly after the oil fervor died down, the Drake family left Titusville and moved to New York City where Edwin decided to invest their fortune. This choice would lead to only further sorrow for the family.
Within a short time, Drake’s investor lost almost everything. This change of fortune led to a steep decline in health for Edwin Drake, confining him to a chair and laying the burden of providing for the family squarely on Laura’s shoulders. A woman of immense resourcefulness, she was ready to rise to the occasion.
While Edwin was investing their money, Laura was quietly saving bits and pieces whenever she could. Her thriftiness saved them in their time of need, allowing her to move the family first to Vermont and then to New Jersey in an attempt to aid Edwin’s ailments. The family was utterly destitute. The vaunted figure of success in the Oil Region could barely get out of bed. Thus, Laura plied her sewing trade and acquired small jobs from neighboring towns to keep them afloat. After the family went to bed at night, she would slip into town, regardless of the weather, and do odd jobs to earn money. Despite her relentless work ethic and dedication, even this was not enough to make ends meet.
As fate would have it, Edwin Drake built just enough strength to venture into New York City one day to try and find a charitable cause to help his family. A Titusville resident saw him there and was immediately distressed by the Colonel’s condition. Upon returning home, the resident helped raise $4,200 for the family. Laura Drake oversaw the money and used it to keep the family alive. Thanks to the kindness of the Titusville community and the management of Laura Drake, the family kept their heads above water until Edwin Drake eventually died in 1880.
After her husband’s death, Laura moved to Philadelphia to live with her daughter Mary and her family. Sadly, the Drakes’ bad luck continued into Mary’s family as her son Harry died in 1906 at age fourteen and her husband Henry Ogden Emory died of Bright’s Disease in 1908. A few years later in January 1915, Laura was injured in a trolley accident. This accident ultimately lead to her death on May 17, 1916. Shortly after, her body was removed to Titusville where she was buried next to her husband in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Throughout her life, Laura Drake was a true “heroine in adversity” and “remarkable woman,” as the Titusville Herald so aptly described her.