Ella Bolli Van Gilder, Hull House Volunteer, Woodcarver

1911 Ella Bolli Van Gilder oil portrait

My Great Grandmother was Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, 1874-1958. Before her marriage to Walter Atkin Van Gilder (1870-1943), she worked at the famous Hull House in Chicago with Jane Addams (Co-founder of the ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union).  Like Jane Addams, Ella Bolli was a suffragette (feminist) working for women’s rights.

Hull House became, at its inception in 1889, “a community of university women” whose main purpose was to provide social and educational opportunities for working class people (many of them recent European immigrants) in the surrounding neighborhood. The “residents” (volunteers at Hull were given this title) held classes in literature, history, art, domestic activities (such as sewing), and many other subjects. Hull House also held concerts that were free to everyone, offered free lectures on current issues, and operated clubs for both children and adults. (from Wikipedia)

My mother, Eleanor Creekmore Dickinson, was very close to her Grandmother and called her “Gram”. Gram was formally trained as a woodcarver in Chicago and carved furniture during most of her life. My mother remembers helping her: sanding, waxing, and polishing wood endlessly as a young teen.

I have several of Gram’s pieces, along with mirrors and stained glass designed by her husband (created by the Dutch workers in his glass factory). When we sold my mother’s house in San Francisco in 2012, we had to clean out fifty years of stuff she and my father had collected.  Some of it went to my mother’s apartment, some to my brothers and me (see Distributing Family Stuff for how we decided who got what), and the rest into storage.

During the big 2012 move, we were surprised to find a previously-unknown carved chair by Gram shoved into a corner of the attic crawl space. We have all but two of the pieces. John and I are finally now discussing how best to restore it. Some of the carved furniture by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder:

unassembled Fumed Oak carved chair by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

Fumed Oak carved chair by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

Fumed Oak carved table by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

Fumed Oak carved piano bench by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

Cheval standing carved mirror fumed Oak by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder, glass by Walter Atkin Van Gilder

detail of Cheval standing carved mirror fumed Oak by Ella Rachel Bolli Van Gilder

1951 Ella Bolli Van Gilder

Additional information provided by my Aunt Louise Creekmore Senatore on 14 June 2016 – added here with her permission:

That was a great Blog on some of the history of your great grandmother – Ellen Rachel Bolli Van Gilder – aka Ella to her friends and Gram to her grand-children. I actually remember a fair amount about her as I was 14 when she passed away. Her birthday actually is 12/2/1874 according to mother and the cemetery records. While at Hull HouseJane Addams encouraged her to travel to the Philippines on missionary work. Fortunately she returned to Knoxville [Tennessee] to marry Dink – Walter Atkin Van Gilder. She told me that grand-dad said when he first laid eyes on her when they both were quite young, that he was going to marry her one day!

The pictures of the furniture that she carved that you have are just lovely. Too bad not to include the chair we have that she carved with the Esperandieu coat of arms or the large bench that she gave to Mark [Dickinson]. Just beautiful workmanship! She also painted in oils but we only have one of her paintings. Gram also sewed beautiful clothes – she was so artistic by nature and in thought as is seen in her poetry and her opinion pieces.

She loved animals too! Eleanor and Wade [Dickinson] were given a beautiful black Persian kitty as a wedding present in 1952, named Duchess. They not being able to take care of a kitty at the time, Gram said that she would take her and after that Duchess was always with Gram, on her bed, in her chair. She was a sweet, loving kitty who, unfortunately, was allergic to her own fur and sneezed a lot. Gram would recite poetry to me while she ironed clothes and would read stories to me to while away the time.

She loved gardening and was always at Faraway [in Knoxville] every Spring to weed and plant and to cut the gorgeous Jonquils. She and Mom would pile them in the car in baskets and take them around to give them to friends. I got to sit in the back of the car, surrounded by bushels of wonder smelling flowers! She tried also to keep a little garden going at Elkmont [Tennessee] just on either side of the front, stone steps. She planted many ferns and bulbs. They didn’t have much success, however, since they needed water and tending more often than we were there. She is the one who named the [Elkmont] cabin “Dear Lodge.”

Note: None of the items pictured are for sale. I do not provide pricing or sales advice for similar items. Please do not ask.
Images Copyright 1951-2016 by Katy Dickinson

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