LEWISTON, Idaho — By any measure, Frances Whitman Monteith and her husband, Charles Monteith, were prominent early residents of the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.
The grandniece of Marcus Whitman – the famous missionary to the Nez Perce Indians – Frances Whitman came to Lewiston with her family from Salem, Oregon, on July 4, 1863, as some of its earliest pioneers.
She married Charles in 1874, and he went on to become a sawmill owner, diplomat, Lewiston mayor and deputy clerk of the District Court, among other claims to fame. Frances was deeply involved in the Presbyterian Church, various civic activities, and was a charter member of the Alice Whitman chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, along with two of her sisters.
It is therefore a bit of a mystery as to why she and her husband never had proper headstones placed at their Normal Hill Cemetery gravesites.
“She only had one son, and he lived in Los Angeles,” Alice Whitman chapter treasurer Jill Nock said of what might have happened after Frances Monteith died in 1937 at the age of 83.
Charles died 22 years earlier, sitting at his desk in the District Court. Her siblings also preceded her in death. That left her with only a smattering of nieces, nephews and other relatives in the area, and none apparently wanted to go to the expense of having a stone placed in her memory.
“So she really just didn’t have anybody here to take care of it, I guess.”
The Alice Whitman chapter will soon rectify the 80-year-old oversight by placing a new, shimmering green headstone on Frances Monteith’s grave. A small, flat funeral home marker has identified the site since her death. It has been covered in dirt and grass and suffered damage from lawn mower blades over the years to the point of being illegible.
Charles is buried nearby, and his grave is completely unmarked. There are currently no plans to place a stone for him.
One clue that may shed some light on the lack of headstones can be found in the archives of the Lewiston Tribune. In the days after Charles Monteith died on March 18, 1915, his wife twice placed an advertisement hinting that his death may have exposed a man in deep financial trouble.
The text of the ad said Frances Monteith “announces the sale of part of her furniture, china, pictures, etc., also canned fruit and vegetables.” It notified the public that the family home at 204 Idaho St. (which Charles Monteith built for his wife in the 1880s) was up for rent, and the premises were open for inspection daily from 10 a.m. to noon, and from 2-4 p.m.
A December 1954 story in the Tribune announcing the sale of the home to a grocery store chain for future use as a parking lot noted that while it was a bit run down, it was once one of the city’s grand homes. It said the two-story building had high ceilings and large rooms that Charles Monteith filled with “massive solid walnut furniture,” an indication that its contents were worth a significant amount when they were sold.
Frances Monteith moved into the nearby home of her sister, Sopha Mallory, after Charles died. Sopha died in February of 1937, and Frances followed in October of the same year. A cursory search of the newspaper archive found no reference after either Monteith’s death to any family financial troubles.
Alice Whitman chapter member and past regent Ludi Wutzke said answers may lie in a collection of Frances Monteith’s letters that is with the Spokane County Library system. But Wutzke said she hasn’t yet had a chance to examine them.
Mystery or not, the chapter members resolved to do something about the state of Frances Monteith’s grave a couple of years ago on the national day of service for the Daughters of the American Revolution, Nock said.
“We had gone down to the cemetery to make sure the headstones were cleaned for our charter members, and then place a flag or some other marker there to honor them,” she said. “And we couldn’t find hers.”
So the members did a little prodding around in the grass, and found the marker covered in debris and out of sight.
“We started thinking that was a shame, that she’d done all this work (to help found the chapter), and her marker keeps getting buried,” Nock said.
It took a couple of years, but the chapter was able to allocate $200 for a new headstone this year. They worked with Sheyanna Weber at Garlinghouse Memorials in Lewiston, who found a suitable stone that fit their budget, and gave them a discount on the etching work.
And Lewiston history buff Steven Branting contacted Lewiston Pre-Mix, which agreed to donate the concrete base for the stone once a day to place it has been selected.
“It’s a green river rock,” Nock said. “It’s really gorgeous.”
Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com