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A Century-Old Courtship:

Thomas G. Conner and Lena Allen

Nancy Clark and Mary Alice Heard

Conner wedding picture

When Lena Allen met Thomas G. Conner in January, 1900, they began a courtship by correspondence that was to last a year and a half. Over the years Lena carefully saved many of their letters, and after her death her daughter Florence saved them also. The letters reveal not only Lena and T.G.'s social habits, their interests, and their philosophies but also their personalities.

Lena met Lucy's brother Thomas at her friend Lucy's wedding. By then Thomas had earned both a B.S. and a dual mechanical/electrical engineering (E&ME) degree from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) and had served for some months as a civilian electrician during the Spanish American war. He was now working for his brother at a cotton seed oil mill in Gadsden, Alabama. Lena had graduated from Shorter College in 1898 and had taken a teacher training course at Anniston College for Young Ladies (Anniston, Alabama), where she also studied piano and taught young girls.

Lena left Anniston in May to return to her home in Sparta, Georgia, and in the fall she began teaching school. She taught in two separate schools close to Dublin, Georgia for two terms (each lasting four months!). During their separation Lena and Thomas wrote often, the courtship culminating in their marriage on June 11, 1902.

Lena and Thomas' letters to each other reveal these young people to be well educated, serious, and very polite. When compared to today's writing styles, the letters are quaintly formal. Lena refers to Thomas as "Mr. Conner," and he calls her "Miss Lena" even after they agreed to marry. The letters are always signed "Yours sincerely," "Yours faithfully," or "Your friend." The word "love" is never used during the correspondence.

These were the days before television, automobiles, and restaurants. Entertainment consisted of Lyceum programs (bands, singers, instrumentalists, speeches, elocutionists), reading, attending church, and writing letters. Social graces--visits with friends--were extremely important. Both Lena and Thomas came from large families, and their love for siblings and parents is evident. Both longed to return home to see them.

Church membership and attendance were very important to both of them. Thomas, though unmarried, taught young girls in Sunday School and eventually was chosen Sunday School superintendent at his church. He confided in Lena, that "I don't believe I could ever love, without reserve, a young lady who is not a full fledged Baptist."

Of what did Lena and Thomas write to each other? Letters discuss their mutual friends, their work, the books they are reading, their church activities, their philosophies of life, their families, politics. Thomas displayed a philosophical bent. Lena appeared the more practical of the two. Both were hard workers in their respective careers.

Lena Allen to Thomas Conner, 4/5/1900 - Anniston is quite gay this spring. Last week was filled with happenings of considerable interest. Friday evening an entertainment and cake walk was given at the Opera house for the benefit of the sufferers in India.
Our girls proved their ability to entertain Saturday afternoon. All of the diminutive folk of the city and those of their elders who are interested in our Young Woman's Christian Association came to enjoy an impromptu recital in connection with a Mikado tea and a dime museum. We had on exhibition in the museum the most wonderful freaks on the Continent (?)--The wild woman, wife of the wild man of Borneo; the snake charmer; the glass eater; and the tall lady--The most wonderful thing told of her was the she was taller than Myra Mitchell. The proceeds of this entertainment are to send a girl to the YWCA conference at Ashville.
Lena to Thomas, 1/4/1901 - Did you watch the old year out to bid the new a happy welcome? That is a custom which always fills me with delight when I think of it. Moments spent in serious meditation on the eve of a New Year are fitting greetings. I shall always regret that circumstances were such as to make that entire nights rest necessary. Especially I am sorry since in my life I shall never see another season like with it--the dying of the old century and the birth of the new; full of sadness and pathos of new hopes and higher aspirations.
Lena to Thomas, 2/27/1901 [about writing letters on Sunday] - I must not leave you under the impression that I believe it entirely wrong to write letters on the Sabbath. Circumstances alter cases. Some are very strict about that one point, but it is the habit one is likely to form, of leaving all letterwriting for Sunday, that I think wrong. In other words, making a convenience of the Sabbath day seems evil. Mother thinks it not a Sunday occupation, hence I can never engage in it with the clearest of consciences. I regard it as very little different from an ordinary conversation. Mother's opinion, though, is worth more than mine. I had rather risk it in this case.
Thomas to Lena, 3/9/1901 - It is now current talk that Miss Louise Ross and "Jack" Stilwell are to be married soon. It has been expected quite awhile. I am not prepared to vouch for it as neither of them has seen fit to inform me as yet. I have also heard that I was to be married soon though everybody myself included are guessing for the fortunate young lady. It is well for some reason that my mother does not live here. These people put out so many improbable, not to say impossible, stories along the above mentioned line. There is a reported engagement almost once a week here, and a marriage about once a quarter, then the people are surprised.
Lena to Thomas 3/19/1901 - When you and your friends stop guessing and know whom your fortunate young lady may be I trust you will not be so selfish as to leave your Georgia friends in ignorance till the last.
Lena to Thomas, 6/22/1901 - Should we wish to change time that it might travel faster? Every passing moment makes us older, and that means just so much nearer the end, and when I think of the moments--how many I do forget to fill! I am so often reminded of a little quotation of Mam's that my pupils loved so much to recite, "Lost somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered, for they are gone forever." We think about these things often, am sure I do, but how little we profit by them! How impracticable are our thoughts! And yet there are so many occasions in our lives when we wish time to pass faster. I am confident that if days could pass with each flash of lightning on a stormy night, there would be someone to be impatient for the next flash.
Lena to Thomas, 7/3/1901 and 9/16/1901 [Lena talks about her new baby brother] - Ernest--that's the baby--is getting sweeter every day. Papa wouldn't sell him for $3000 this week. He has valued him at a $1000 a week. An unusual child, don't you think? I do. He would hardly be worth that to any but us.
We've all been enjoying the company of our little brother Ernest this evening. He is indeed a ray of sunshine. Tomorrow he will be three months old--a short while, within which to have afforded so much pleasure to all around. He is most fitly named, for there is nothing he does--laugh or cry, eat or sleep--but that you are reminded of his seriousness. It is his delight to "look at the little boy in the mirror"--not a very favorable sign in recommendation I fear.
Thomas to Lena, 8/13/1901 - Of course you have my best wishes for the success of your school. I wish I were allowed to assist you instead of taking your time. I would like to be a pupil but for the dread of missing a lesson; there is no doubt that I would do that some every time I went to class. Somehow "cat gets my tongue" every time I get near you. Don't you think so?
Thomas to Lena, 11/7/1901 - 'Tis said that one word in a thousand spoken in the ordinary conversation is worth remembering, therefore time thus spent is time wasted. Others say that not the actual words but the "between the line thoughts," personal contact ect. is more than full recompense. From an hour well spent in the society of a friend, much of encouragement for self and respect and love for fellow man is sure to result to one properly tutored and in the right humor. In fact 'tis indirectly a means of a liberal education. Unless equally as charitable view is taken of this correspondence I fear that you have long since decided that I am a very unprofitable correspondent to you. Sometimes I feel wicked then I write you and I expect you know how I feel. My trouble is this, writing to one is in a degree like talking. If I could only remember how you look, I might do better, yet except a pair of eyes my memory is almost a blank. Why I cannot say. Therefore I am not only annoyed at myself but I also lack that inspiration your physical presence would give me, for even now I feel that I might talk several hours could I only see you...
Have been doing better since cold weather and will be O.K. by hog killing time.
Lena to Thomas, 11/13/1901 - The third week of my school finds me with 40 pupils. Next week may bring me 45. I'll not know what to do with them, that's certain, for the room is full now. My apartment is not so spacious as the one I had last year. Only one advantage so far as I can see. There can't be so many cracks or broken window panes. Necessity crowds us nearer together and as a result we are warmer. If I had no pupils six, seven and eight years old I think I could get on fine. It's so hard to keep them out of mischief...
Grandpa laughs at me for counting the days I have to teach now. He says I remind him of the fellow who was hired by a farmer to catch moles. When asked how he was succeeding he replied that he was doing well. When he caught the one he was after and two more he would have three. It's hardly as bad as that for I have already made thirteen days.
Thomas to Lena, 11/24/1901 - About ten days ago I was well rewarded for an extra night's work. For some cause I did not get to leave the mill till about 2 A.M. Going home I noticed quite a display of falling stars or shooting meteors. It was a sight [worth] looking at. Not so many. I watched about one hour and a half, saw probably 150 to 200 in all, yet I never expect to see anything grander than this exhibition of the protection afforded us by the atmosphere that envelopes us.
Thomas to Lena, 12/29/1901 - After thinking a great deal and finally deciding what suited me best, then by much hard labor securing a promise of the thing dearest to my heart, I find that my choice is the choice of my family and I have their best wishes for success in this my latest undertaking. And I might well add to me thus far my greatest undertaking. For I feel that if anyone makes any mistakes I shall be responsible. For it seems to me in many instances that I was forced to do much persuading. Yet I am proud.
I wonder if you are still ashamed of that ring. I trust you may sometimes be able to wear it where people can see it. Do you think you can? However, use your own pleasure; that, of course, is mine also.
Thomas to Lena, 3/7/1902 - Of course I am happy. Of all mean men, an ungrateful is among the most to be pitied. I have all I could wish were I absolutely able to choose. To you I owe much happiness. More than I can tell. It grows on me, yet I believe that what we know is but an earnest of the blessings a kind Providence has in store for us if we are only faithful to him and to ourselves.