Mary Jane Beach (1833-1924) : From Farm Girl to Mother of International Singer

My 3rd great grand aunt, Mary Jane “Jennie” Beach had a long, interesting life, filled with all the ups and downs, twists and turns, joys and sorrows which marks the journey for most of us.

Otto mapJennie was the only daughter of Tyler Moses Beach (1798-1880) by his 2nd wife, Sarah Holmes Clark (1799-1865). Tyler, with his father, Revolutionary War veteran, Moses Tyler Beach, hailed from New Ashford, Berskshire County, MA. When the Erie Canal opened in the 1820s, the Beach clan migrated west to Cattaraugus County, NY, where they numbered among the founding settlers of the rural town, Otto.

Jennie was born Jan. 12, 1833, the first child of her mother, Sarah. Curiously, the database, Marriage Bonds of Ontario 1803-1834, includes a record for Tyler and Sarah being married about a month later, on Feb. 14, 1833. (Hmm … )  Jennie’s half-brother, WIlliam A. Beach, was 11 years old when she was born. Her brother Robert was 6 years younger. Another child of Tyler and Sarah, James, died as a toddler.

Tyler was a fairly successful farmer in Otto. He had about 160 acres and produced substantial quantities of both field crops, dairy products and maple sugar. The family also ran both a grist mill and a saw mill. It can be imagined that, when not attending school, Jennie was kept plenty busy with chores and looking after her little brother while Tyler and William worked the farm and mills, and Sarah looked after the household.

Jennie grew to be a lovely young lady and talented pianist. She received an education at the Griffith Academy in Springville, just 12 miles north of her home. It was there that she met her future husband, Ambrose Spencer Yaw. While Jennie was a pianist, Ambrose was gifted with “a voice of remarkable range and power.” (National Cylcopaedia of American Biography, Vol. XIII, 1906).

Jennie and Ambrose were married in the fall of 1854; she was 21and he was 23. The young couple settled in the town of Boston in Erie County, NY, about 22 miles north of her childhood home in Otto.

Mary Jane Beach

Mary Jane Beach

Ambrose Spencer Yaw

Ambrose Spencer Yaw

Ambrose took up the trade of his father, Hiram Yaw, which was the manufacture of bells. The 1855 Census shows Jennie (Mary J.) and Ambrose living in a frame house next to his parents, Hiram and Mary. A young German couple, Henry and Lisa, are boarding with Ambrose and Jennie. Presumably, Henry worked at the Yaw family’s bell factory.

1855 NY CensusThe Yaw family were early settlers of Boston. Their specialty was the manufacture of sheet iron cow and sheep bells. They had control of the market from Canada to New Mexico and Texas.

The Yaw bell factory was located along the north branch of 18-Mile Creek and utilized water power in it’s manufacturing process. Ambrose didn’t have a long walk to work, and the town was fairly small, with the Yaw families living right in the center.

Map of Boston

Jennie and Ambrose had five children together at their home in Boston:

  • Page Gerald Yaw, born Dec, 27, 1855
  • Charles Bell Yaw, born Oct. 12, 1858
  • Richard B. Yaw, born 1861
  • Anna Bentley Yaw, born Apr. 14, 1866
  • Ellen Beach Yaw, born Sep. 14, 1869

By the time of the 1865 NY Census, Ambrose was providing a comfortable living for his family. The bell manufacturing business was doing very well, despite the devastation of the war years, and the couple appears to have had two immigrant servants sharing their home.

1865 NY CensusBut these good times were soon to end. Jennie gave birth to her youngest child, Ellen, in September. Just 7 weeks later,  Ambrose died. He was only 38 years old. Though I’ve scoured the internet for a cause of his death, it remains a mystery.

Jennie had to carry on without him. At first, it appears she was able to hold things together with whatever funds and property Ambrose left her, for in the 1870 Census taken the summer after Ambrose’s death, Jennie was still able to employ a domestic to assist her with running the home. At the far left, we see the value of her home is $4500.

1870 US CensusBut over the next few years, things became pretty rough. Just 5 years later, the 1875 NY Census paints a different picture for Jennie and her children. They remained in Boston with Ambrose’s family, but  Jennie was compelled to move into a home of far humbler means. The 1875 NY Census records the value of her home is just $800 (2nd column on left).

1875 Census

Gone was her domestic help, and gone were her Yaw family relations. It’s curious to me why she did not move back to Otto, but her mother had died in 1865 and her father was an elderly man living with her younger brother, Robert and his family. Her older half-brother, William, had moved to Buffalo with his wife, where he lived in an apartment and made a living driving a street car. Jennie did receive some financial assistance from her father over the years. Being a trained musician, I wouldn’t be surprised if she also taught music lessons to support herself and the kids.

While it may seem life was desolate for Jennie, I doubt that was the case. She had her children, and they must have been a source of comfort to her. Especially her youngest daughter, Ellen. I suspect Jennie came to see Ellen as a consolation from Heaven for the loss of her beloved Ambrose. Ellen, like her father, was born with an extraordinary singing talent. Being an educated musician, Jennie recognized instructed both her daughters in music and both girls developed into talented singers.

By the time Jennie’s children were young adults, the family started to split up. In 1880, her oldest, Page G. Yaw, had moved to Minneapolis, MN. While I haven’t found Page on the 1880 Census, he appears in the 1880 Minneapolis City Directory working as a driver for the H. F. Lillibridge bakery. The 1880 US Census shows Jennie’s son Richard employed in the cheese making business with his Beach family relations down in Otto while living with an elderly man and woman in his hometown, Boston. The 1880 US Census shows Jennie’s daughters, Anna (15) and Ellen (11), still living in Boston, but residing in the home of a blacksmith named Daniel Chase and his family. The girls were mistakenly identified by the census enumerator as his step-daughters.

1880 Census snippetAt first, because the wife of D. D. Chase on this census record is named Mary J. and born about the same time as Jennie, I thought perhaps Jennie had remarried. But there is no evidence of this, and Daniel Chase appears on earlier census records, during the years Ambrose was still alive and married to Jennie, with this same Mary J. as his wife.

Where were Jennie and her middle son, Charles is 1880? While I haven’t done a page-by-page search of the 1880 Census records for either Boston or Otto, it is likely she didn’t live far from her children.

Jennie’s father, Tyler Moses Beach, passed away in the summer of 1880. His will was probated in the fall by her brother, Robert C. Beach. From Tyler’s will we learn that he bequeathed to her the sum of $500.

Last and will and testament of Tyler M. Beach, dated Nov. 14, 1865

Last and will and testament of Tyler M. Beach, dated Nov. 15, 1865

In the years following, as her sons moved off to find their fortunes, Jennie became a huge advocate of her daughter, Ellen. With help of her friends and neighbors in the little town of Boston, Ellen was sent off first to Buffalo, and later Boston (MA) and New York City to receive voice instruction. Ellen gave her first public concert in Brooklyn, NY, in 1888. Her career took off from there and her beloved mother, Jennie, was often by her side.

In 1890, Ellen’s singing career had her relocating to Los Angeles with her mother and sister Anna. Ellen became the famous singing sensation known as “Lark Ellen.” She traveled far and wide giving concerts, from Carnegie Hall to Paris and Rome. On many occasions, her mother and sister accompanied her on her travels, How proud Jennie must have been! And how different her life became with her daughter’s fame!

Jennie lived in the Los Angeles area the rest of her life. For some periods, she would stay with Page G. Yaw and his family in Minneapolis. Page’s wife was named Flora and they had 4 children. Page worked at various occupations, from merchant to contractor with the railroad. He eventually moved to Seattle where, in 1914, Page died of cancer at the age of 58.

Charles B. Yaw ended up moving to California with his mother and sisters. He married a woman named Nettie Jay. They had no children and Charles died of diabetes in 1909.

Richard B. Yaw remained in Otto through at least 1915, where he lived the rural life of a farmer. He had married a woman named Lottie and together they had 2 children. He and Lottie divorced and Richard then married Lucy McCracken. He became a salesman and they moved to Pennsylvania and then Florida, where Richard died in 1931.

Anna married Benjamin F. Thorpe in 1900 and it is with them that Jennie lived. Benjamin owned a ranch where he planted orange groves. Anna gave singing lessons. They had no children but were very active in the community and appear often in newspaper society pages.

Anna Beach YawBenjamin Thorpe built a Spanish-style home in Covina and this is where Jennie would live until her death in 1924.

In her later years, Jennie was well cared for by her daughter, Anna. For her 80th birthday, Anna held a party for her mother which was recounted in the local newspaper.

Covina Argus. Saturday, Jan. 17, 1914.

Covina Argus. Saturday, Jan. 17, 1914.

A 1916 photo sent to her cousin Charles back in East Otto, NY, shows Jennie bearing a sweet smile that extends from her mouth to her eyes. She is elegantly dressed and bejeweled. What a fine woman!

1916 photo of Mary jane

Photo courtesy of James Beach

The beautiful and talented Ellen married first Vere Goldthwaite and later Franklin Cannon. She lived in Paris for a period of time, but settled in California near her sister and mother. She never had children, but her clear love for children expressed itself in the Lark Ellen School for Boys, which she established in the 1890s. Her sister, Anna, directed the school. There is a plethora of information about “Lark Ellen” on the internet; a Google search of Ellen Beach Yaw yields nearly 100,000 results. This Los Angeles Times article in particular is interesting for including her mother’s role in developing Ellen’s career.

Mary Jane “Jennie” Beach Yaw passed away Feb. 7, 1924, at the age of 91. She had such a long and interesting life. She began life the only daughter of a farmer in Western New York State. She married a handsome young man, a fellow classmate, who shared her passion for music. She gave birth to 5 children and with Ambrose’s thriving business, they possessed a charmed life with close family ties. But it all came to a crashing end when Ambrose died shortly after the birth of their youngest child. Jennie struggled to raise those children on her own, and in her youngest, Ellen, she found purpose, for Ellen seemed the depository of all the creative talent of her deceased father, a talent which would bring her world-wide fame.

I love to reflect on the arc of Jennie’s life. I love to imagine her traveling the world with Ellen and then aging gently in the home of her loving daughter, Anna. She endured the passing of her husband and two sons before her. Surely, she shared not only in the successes of her daughters’ lives, but also the sorrow of their childlessness.

When Jennie died, she was transported home to Boston, NY, to be buried beside the husband she survived by 55 years. The obituary for Mary Jane Beach Yaw gives testament to the sweet woman she was. She is indeed, now 91 years since her passing (at age 91, ironically!), “Gone but not forgotten.” RIP, sweet Aunt Jennie!


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3 Responses to Mary Jane Beach (1833-1924) : From Farm Girl to Mother of International Singer

  1. Jim Beach says:

    WOW!! Fantastic write up on the life of Mary Jane Beach Yaw. Beth, you did a beautiful story with all the research you also did. I will compare your information with my family tree and update accordingly. Thanks. Jim

  2. Lise says:

    It was nice coming across your information. We’re cousins of a sort, I’m from the Yaws of Pennsylvania, then Sandpoint, Idaho, then Seattle, and I know Ellen Beach Yaw was always considered a cousin to my grandmothers generation. Someone even snagged us old recordings of her hitting those high notes. I’ll see if anyone on my side has any anecdotal information on Ambrose passing.

    • Site Admin says:

      Hello, cousin! Thank you for your comment! There are several hits on YouTube for “Lark Ellen.” Her voice was phenomenal! Any luck discovering what happened to Ambrose?

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